Cruz 'center' of spring attention with Bucs

No. 3 prospect says he is excited for an opportunity to get outfield reps

March 4th, 2021

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates penciled into the lineup at center field for Thursday’s 6-1 win over the Braves, giving the natural shortstop his first starting reps of the spring in the outfield after he saw two innings there late during Wednesday’s game in Port Charlotte, Fla.

This has been a storyline to watch all spring for the No. 64 overall prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Questions about Cruz’s long-term fit at shortstop have emerged in the past few years for various reasons, though none are due to inability to field the position.

The Pirates have a logjam at shortstop, where Kevin Newman, Erik González and Cole Tucker are battling for starting reps. Cruz, ranked as the Bucs' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline, is exceptionally athletic, which means it wouldn’t be a tough transition to have more ground to cover. And at 6-foot-7 with great speed, Cruz has the ability to take big strides and provide extra length for ranging plays or home-run robberies than the average player.

If he landed in center field for the Pirates in the future, Cruz would join Aaron Judge and Walt Bond -- each 6-foot-7 -- as the tallest players to man the position.

“Where other guys would have to jump, he can just stay on his feet and still keep running, so the height definitely plays, for sure,” first base and outfield coach Tarrik Brock said of Cruz on Wednesday.

Speaking through interpreter Mike Gonzalez on Thursday morning, Cruz was adamant about which position he prefers: “I still see myself as a shortstop. No one is going to move me out of there.” Cruz grew up idolizing Tony Fernandez, and he sees himself in the infield for years to come.

Bucs general manager Ben Cherington agreed last month, expressing his desire to develop Cruz as shortstop primarily, and manager Derek Shelton appreciates how adamant Cruz is to stick at the position.

“We view him as a shortstop,” Shelton said. “We think he can play shortstop. His work has continued to be good there, and he's played well in games.”

But Cruz is also welcoming the time he’ll see this spring in the outfield. The 22-year-old grew up liking to play in center field before he switched to shortstop, and he got reps this winter while playing with Gigantes del Cibao, though they came during practice and scrimmages vs. live games.

Cruz has received help from some tenured MLB outfielders, including Marcell Ozuna, former organization mate Starling Marte and current teammate Gregory Polanco.

“I’m excited, and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity,” Cruz said. “I feel ready and equipped, especially being able to take some reps out there in winter ball."

Cruz said he’s glad to be back at camp after having been involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident in September. According to the Diario Libre newspaper, Cruz was driving on Carretera Sánchez between Baní and San Cristóbal when a collision occurred between his vehicle and a motorcycle carrying three people, all of whom died in the accident. The report stated that the motorcycle was traveling in the left lane without any lights on. No additional update on the status of any pending legal issues related to the incident was made on Thursday.

“In the beginning, I was very fearful of not being able to continue to play the game that I love and to reach the dream that I've always had, which is reaching the big leagues,” Cruz said. “However, when things became clearer later and everything was solved, I was able to reach that hope again that I'll be able to play. Now, I have peace.”

Now, the biggest stage is nearly in reach for the gigantic Cruz. He’s yet to show his true potential with the bat this spring, going 1-for-7 with a single, but he has some of the best raw power in the organization. His goals at the plate this spring are simple: “Wherever it goes, just hit it hard.”

With the competition at shortstop and in center field, it seems unlikely -- no matter if Cruz hits it hard in the coming weeks or not -- that he will crack the Opening Day roster, but he’s ready to work wherever he lands come April and push for a spot on the Pirates’ roster this year.

“I don't think I'm near or far [from MLB],” he said. “This is on the Pirates, whenever they feel I’m ready. When they feel I’m ready, trust me, I’ll be ready.”