LAKELAND, Fla. -- Spring Training means different things to different players. Most are there to fine-tune for the season, while others -- veterans without guaranteed contracts -- are there to try out, with hopes of nabbing one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster.
But there is another category, saved for those stud prospects who are ticketed for the Minor Leagues when camp breaks: Make it really, really hard for the manager and front office to not put you on the roster when competition begins in earnest.
Count Pirates infielder Oneil Cruz in that latter category. Yes, he’s likely destined to start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. It’s also probable he’ll make his way onto the big league roster eventually.
In the meantime, he’s doing what he can to at least give the decision-makers something to think about. So far this spring, Cruz has done everything right at the plate: His homers have traveled inexplicable distances, and he’s making hard contact nearly every time up.
Another example of Cruz's fine spring emerged during the Pirates’ 6-6 tie with the Tigers in Lakeland on Wednesday. Facing Michael Fulmer in the fifth inning, Cruz lined a base hit up the middle that registered 113.4 mph off his bat, per Statcast. He added an RBI single in the sixth.
Add to that two monstrous homers in prior spring appearances, and Cruz is making a case to stick with the big club -- or at least ensure his stay at Triple-A is a brief one.
The key to fast-tracking to the Majors might be his versatility in the field. For now, Cruz profiles as a shortstop, but like so many others that have been developed through Pittsburgh's system, the 6-foot-7 No. 3 Pirates prospect will get reps elsewhere. Look for him to see playing time in the corner-outfield spots, with an emphasis on left field.
“I think we prefer that he's versatile,” manager Derek Shelton said prior to the game. “And that's not saying that he can't play shortstop. But versatility is a huge part of our club. If you look at our position-player group, I would say almost all of them can play another position, maybe with the exception of the first basemen. We look at him as a shortstop, but we also look at building him to be a versatile player.”
Shelton pointed to the large outfield at PNC Park as one reason why left field might be where Cruz gets his first practice as an outfielder.
“But I think he's athletic enough that he could play anywhere,” Shelton added.
With an eye on cracking the Opening Day rotation, Wil Crowe turned in a solid outing vs. the Tigers, allowing one earned run over 2 2/3 innings while striking out four.
Crowe is vying for a spot in a rotation that may have more room than in a more prototypical year. With teams cramming in their preparation over a shortened Spring Training, pitchers are going to have to be monitored more closely, and workloads might be spread out a little more than usual.
Rosters might expand in the first month of the season, too, to make up for the shortened Spring Training. That will create more opportunities.
Crowe, who made 25 starts and one relief appearance for the Pirates in 2021, is comfortable about where he is with his preparation this spring and is optimistic about where this may lead in a couple of weeks.
“I can control only what I can control -- get guys out and show them that I’ve put in some good work this offseason, that I’m a guy for them,” Crowe said. “Opening Day is right around the corner, so I’ll just be as ready as I can for whatever comes.”
It was a breezy day at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, and for pitchers, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction -- straight out.
From a hitter’s perspective, however, these were perfect conditions for a ballgame. That showed up in the box score, with three Pirates batters recording home runs: Hoy Park, Michael Perez and Hunter Owen.
Park hit his homer in his first at-bat of the spring.
“I was trying to make contact, especially first game, first at-bat,” Park said. “Trying to be on time [with a] good swing. It wasn't perfect contact. But it was pretty much like, I can do damage on it. I can feel [strength] in my body.”