Will Oneil Cruz return to Pirates in 2023?

August 26th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

There is a realistic possibility that does not play another Major League game this season. Cruz, however, is still holding out hope.

“It's always possible,” Cruz said through team interpreter Stephen Morales. “Day by day, I'm putting all my effort out to get better. Day by day. We'll see.”

Despite Cruz’s optimism, the probability that Cruz returns this season from his fractured left fibula falls lower and lower with every passing day, especially due to the latest snag in Cruz’s rehab.

On Wednesday, Todd Tomczyk, the Pirates’ director of sports medicine, said that Cruz’s rehab has recently “plateaued.” Cruz began a running progression in early August, one of the last boxes that Cruz needed to check in his rehab, but the 24-year-old’s running progression was recently halted due to left foot soreness from running on the treadmill.

“You don't want it to happen, but it's normal with the kind of surgery we had to have a little bit of a setback,” Cruz said. “But we're optimistic that we're going to go back out again and do our best to get back as soon as possible.”

In the long term, he should be back to normal. Tomczyk said that foot biomechanics being negatively impacted from a traumatic injury, such as Cruz’s, is not uncommon. Tomczyk did note that Cruz’s ankle structure remains good and his long-term prognosis remains encouraging, adding that Cruz shouldn’t experience future complications with his ankle.

In the short term, Cruz might not have enough time to get back into action. The Pirates have 33 games (36 calendar days) remaining in the season. He would need a rehab assignment before returning; Triple-A Indianapolis, a likely rehab spot, has 26 games (29 calendar days) remaining.

Considering that Cruz isn’t back to routinely running, let alone running the bases or performing any other dynamic movement, it seems unlikely that he will be fully healthy in time for the last chunk of the season. Even if Cruz is healthy, the Pirates might elect to err on the side of caution, given their record. As Tomczyk said on Wednesday, the Pirates are “running out of days.”

"It's hard for me to see my teammates out there playing hard and not be able to help the team,” Cruz said. “It is what it is. I'll have to continue to get better, and who knows, I could be back at any time. We'll see what happens."

When Cruz does return to action, he’ll have an opportunity to finally play alongside such fellow young talent as Endy Rodríguez, Henry Davis and Liover Peguero, among others, all of whom made their Major League debuts during Cruz’s absence. Despite a litany of injuries -- along with Cruz, the Pirates are without JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez and prospect Mike Burrows for the rest of the season -- the Pirates are 17-19 since July 17.

“Hopefully in the future, we can all be together,” Cruz said. “I can’t control the future, but it will be really good to play with a bunch of talented, young players that are now up here and make this team a special one.”

For all the rookies who have made their debuts this season, the Pirates still miss their shortstop.

In Cruz’s absence, the Pirates have rolled with seven other shortstops: Peguero, Ji Hwan Bae, Nick Gonzales, Tucupita Marcano, Rodolfo Castro, Alika Williams and Chris Owings. Since Cruz went down, that group has been worth -0.5 fWAR, tied for the lowest mark in the league.

Aside from fWAR, Pittsburgh’s shortstops haven’t provided much thump. Since April 10th, Cruz’s first game on the injured list, Pittsburgh’s shortstops are hitting .230/.295/.356 with 14 home runs, and their .652 OPS ranks 25th in baseball. Cruz’s preseason goal of a 30-30 or 40-40 season was lofty, for sure, but given his combination of power and speed, it was a goal realistically in reach.

“You always appreciate the game,” Cruz said. “Even being on the outside now and just watching games, you always want to be part of it. It’s a learning process. You take that as an experience. You get to see the game from the outside. I think I learned a lot doing that from the house or going on trips with the team.”