BRADENTON, Fla. -- Last spring, Oneil Cruz caught a ride in a van that departed Minor League camp at Pirate City, stepped into the batter’s box at LECOM Park and launched a towering home run over the fence in right-center field and the boardwalk beyond it. It was a show of the shortstop prospect’s potential -- something to dream on.
On Friday afternoon, Cruz stepped into the Major League side of the Pirate City clubhouse and found a No. 61 jersey with his name on it. This spring, he wants those dreams to become reality.
“My goal, really, is I want to make it to the big leagues this year,” Cruz said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I want to do everything possible to make it to the big leagues this year.”
Listed at 6-foot-6, MLB Pipeline's No. 64 prospect in baseball almost assuredly won’t break camp with the Pirates. If he starts the season back in Double-A, where he only played 35 games last year, it’s more likely that he’ll debut in 2021. So, does he really see Pittsburgh as a possibility this year?
“Yeah,” Cruz said. “For me, there’s nothing impossible.”
From the perspective of projecting performance, indeed, anything seems possible with Cruz. He’s like a scouting science experiment, impossibly tall for a middle infielder but still surprisingly capable of manning shortstop. He has a cannon arm and tantalizing raw power -- with more likely coming as he fills out his frame -- and he runs well. But his size and long limbs lead to questions about his offensive profile and defensive future.
Still, he’s 21 years old, and he could develop into just about anything.
"He's 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 -- keeps getting taller -- but it doesn't necessarily look like that on the field,” said center field prospect Jared Oliva, who played behind Cruz in Double-A last season. “The range he has, the way he's able to go down and pick balls, the strong arm -- it really doesn't seem like he's that tall when he's moving out there. He's super fast, too. He can take two steps and cover a lot of ground. He's super, super loose and relaxed in everything he does, which I think benefits him a lot."
Cruz said he gained 5-10 pounds of muscle this offseason, hoping to add strength and endurance to play a full season after a fractured right foot limited him to 73 games last year. Nobody in the organization has talked to him about changing positions, he said, even though it seems like the question most everyone asks about him.
“I want to do everything possible to maintain myself right there playing shortstop,” Cruz said.
He has a long way to go before it’s a concern at the Major League level. He started last season with Class A Advanced Bradenton and earned a midseason promotion to Double-A Altoona, where he hit .269/.346/.412 in 35 games. He’s on the 40-man roster but could be one of the earliest cuts in camp, given his distance from the Majors. But he’s hoping to leave another lasting impression while he’s here.
“It feels great. It’s an honor. It’s a blessing to be here. I’m really excited,” Cruz said. “I had a good time last year, being able to show a little bit of what I have, and I’m excited to show a little bit of what I have now.”
But that wasn’t actually ever in question. Reynolds heard from Pirates management shortly after PiratesFest last month that their plan was for him to remain in left field, where he spent most of his time as a rookie last season.
“I was prepared for it. I got perfectly comfortable in left last year. It took a little bit just because of how tricky left field is at our place, but yeah, I’m comfortable,” Reynolds said. “Dyson’s a really good center fielder, so it’ll be nice to play next to him. He’s a premier defender, so it’ll be nice.”
General manager Ben Cherington said during the Winter Meetings that the Pirates were comfortable with the idea of Reynolds playing center on a regular basis, and the position opened up when Pittsburgh traded Starling Marte to Arizona. But Cherington insisted after the deal that the Bucs would find a center fielder, and that officially happened on Thursday.
“He can go over and play center, and he’s done a good job with it there,” manager Derek Shelton said of Reynolds. “But to be able to keep him locked in in left is a good thing for us.”
Saturday is the deadline for position players to report to Pirates camp. As of Friday afternoon, only three hitters had not yet arrived: second baseman Adam Frazier, non-roster outfielder Sócrates Brito and Polanco. They are all expected to arrive on Saturday before the first full-squad workout, which will take place on Sunday at Pirate City.