Cherington hears the Cruz chatter: 'There's important work he's doing in Indy'

May 1st, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- As the calendar turns to May, Oneil Cruz is not in the big leagues.

Cruz, the Pirates’ walking highlight of a prospect, has yet to be called up. For the time being, he remains with Triple-A Indianapolis. Prior to the Pirates’ 7-6, 10-inning victory over the Padres on Saturday night at PNC Park, general manager Ben Cherington addressed the organization’s decision to keep Cruz in the Minors.

“We just felt like at this time, there’s important work he’s doing in Indy,” Cherington said. “That’s the right spot for him right now.”

How long Indianapolis will be the right spot for Cruz is unknown. What is known is that the Pirates, in theory, have a sensible opportunity to bring Cruz into the mix.

Kevin Newman, Pittsburgh’s starting shortstop, will be out three to five weeks with a left groin injury. The Pirates have looked elsewhere to fill the vacancy.

Diego Castillo, a rookie, has taken over at shortstop. Cole Tucker, who was activated Saturday off the COVID-19 injured list, will see time there, as well. Even Ke’Bryan Hayes could get a spot start. As of right now, Pittsburgh’s shortstop plans do not include Cruz.

“We want to do our job to try to put him in a position to be as successful a big leaguer as possible when it’s his time,” Cherington said. “Sometimes that means really spending a little bit of time working on things in the Minor Leagues. That’s where he is now. … We expect he’ll continue to work toward the targets that we’ve laid out for him. If he does -- he’s super talented -- he’ll have a chance to help us a lot up here.”

Cherington didn't dive too deep into the specifics of what Cruz is working on in Indianapolis, but the GM did provide a little detail. At the plate, Cruz’s ability to generate awe-inspiring exit velocities is well-known, but Cherington said the organization would like to see Cruz continue to refine his swing decisions. Defensively, Cherington cited Cruz’s pitch-to-pitch focus, a trait that’s all the more important with Cruz seeing time in the outfield. Still, Cherington acknowledged that the decision to keep Cruz in Indianapolis isn’t popular.

There is a vocal contingent of fans who wanted Cruz in a Pirates uniform on Opening Day. Their numbers continued to grow as Cruz dazzled during Spring Training. And when Cruz hit a walk-off home run last week, a no-doubter that he emphasized by walking out of the batter’s box and coolly throwing his bat towards his dugout, the calls for Cruz seemed to only grow in quality and quantity.

It should be noted, however, that Cruz took a .188 batting average into Saturday and had hit one home run in 18 games.

“[Development is] not always going be a straight line,” Cherington said. “There’s going to be left-hand turns and right-hand turns. We believe in the players we have and believe if we continue to create the right environment around them and put resources in front of them that will lead to good things. Then we’ll see them in Pittsburgh doing special things.”

Cruz, who played two games with the Pirates at the end of last season, has already done some special things in Pittsburgh -- few will forget his 118.2 mph single in his second career plate appearance. So has right-hander Roansy Contreras, who finds himself in a similar boat.

Contreras, who debuted last year, as well, was called up one game into this season due to injuries. The 22-year-old impressed out of the bullpen, picking up his first Major League win in the process but was demoted after three appearances. At the time of the demotion, Pirates manager Derek Shelton explained that Contreras, the Bucs' No. 5 prospect, could get stretched out and start, not relieve, in Indianapolis -- opportunities Contreras could have theoretically had in Pittsburgh. On Saturday, Cherington expanded on the team’s rationale.

“We just felt like at some point we had to give him the chance to get some normal starts under his belt, and Triple-A was the place to do it for now,” Cherington said. “He’s really important to us. Like we told him when we optioned him, if he does the things he’s capable of and controls his end of it, our hope is that we’ll see him in Pittsburgh sometime this summer.”

Contreras and Cruz are both unmistakably part of Pittsburgh’s long-term nucleus. They could both be back in Pittsburgh by the summer, if not sooner. For now, the Pirates’ future remains just that: the future.