What to expect from Oneil Cruz

June 20th, 2022

At the very end of the 2021 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates rewarded Oneil Cruz for the work he had put in all year, and before, to deserve a taste of the big leagues. The fact he was scorching hot to end the year in Double-A, then Triple-A, didn’t hurt, but wasn’t the biggest factor.

The fact he went 3-for-9 with his first Major League home run only made Pirates fans beat the drum harder for him to be on the Opening Day roster. When he wasn’t, Bucs Nation wasn’t the only disappointed party.

Clearly, the 23-year-old Cruz wasn’t thrilled he wasn’t in Pittsburgh to start the year. It showed in his performance, as the No. 22 prospect sulked his way to a .176/.282/.284 line in 19 April games. That didn’t keep Pirates fans from clamoring as Cruz did make some social media waves with a handful of elite-level exit velocities, but it was not the kind of response to adversity that is likely to make a team’s brass want to call you back up.

The Pirates wanted Cruz to start really learning to play the outfield, which is something he may not have been thrilled with, given how clear it’s been that he considers himself a shortstop. But he has seen action in left field for 10 games so he has that arrow in his quiver, if necessary, and gives Derek Shelton some flexibility in getting his bat into the lineup, even if he’s likely to see most of his time at shortstop.

There was a period when everyone expected the 6-foot-7 Cruz to move from the premium position eventually, and the Pirates kept him on the dirt for a while longer to help him remain focused, something that he hadn’t always done so consistently. But as assistant general manager Steve Sanders said when he got called up last year:

“He’s out there tonight; that should certainly embody a level of confidence we have in Oneil in general. He’s proved a lot of people wrong to this point. We’ll continue to challenge him to get better. We don’t want to place any limits on him. He’s incredibly talented on both sides of the ball, including defensively. We don’t think what we’re seeing now is the best we’re going to see.”

To his credit, Cruz has shaken off his early-season struggles, with six homers and an .868 OPS in May and a .277/.357/.489 line thus far in June. We’ve been writing and talking about Cruz for so long, it’s easy to forget how young he is, still three and a half years younger than the average hitter in the Triple-A International League.

Obviously, you’d like to see more maturity from a prospect, especially since it’s an area the Pirates and Cruz have been working on for quite some time now. But he’s not the first young player whose performance suffered because of not making a roster or receiving a callup. And he won’t be the last. And if we’re going to be critical of his early performance, he deserves credit for dusting himself off and righting his ship to earn the call he thought he deserved on Opening Day.

There’s no question Cruz’s left-handed bat immediately provides an upgrade to a Pirates offense currently last in the National League in OPS and runs scored. We all know the power is legit and he’s still learning how to refine his approach to get to it consistently. But there’s reason for those who have played the homer over the Clemente Wall in PNC Park late last year in a loop to be excited. His swing should work very well in his home ballpark and he’s shown the ability to hit the ball extremely hard on a consistent basis.

As the Pirates continue to rebuild, there have been many opportunities for prospects to show what they can do. And while no one will mistake Pittsburgh as a contender this year, the Pirates have played with energy and exuberance.

That will be the key for Cruz, who has as much All-Star potential as just about anyone in the organization. For now, seeing him and Ke’Bryan Hayes on the left side of the infield is reason enough to head to the North Side of Pittsburgh, even if he’ll have to eventually embrace a move to the outfield to make room for Liover Peguero.

There has never been any question about Cruz's talent. If he can follow the leads of the other young Bucs making an impression for the first time and bring a big league effort to the ballpark daily, the sky really is the limit. And it looks like we’re about to find out just how high of a ceiling he has and how much he’s willing to keep working to reach it.