Pittsburgh Pirates: Oneil Cruz Ranked Among Best Shortstop Prospects
By Noah Wright
MLB Pipeline put up their next top 10 prospect list, this time at shortstop. In their last list, Pipeline placed two Pittsburgh Pirates middle infield prospects, 2020 first round pick Nick Gonzales and speedy Korean middle infielder Ji-Hwan Bae as the second and ninth best second base prospects in baseball. They also ranked Mason Martin as the 10th best first base prospect in baseball.
At shortstop, MLB Pipeline ranked slugging infielder Oneil Cruz as the 9th best prospect at the position. He edges out Miami Marlins prospect Jazz Chisholm and is surpassed by the headliner of the Mookie Betts trade going to Boston, Jeter Downs on the list.
Cruz first started to show up on prospect lists after his outstanding 2018 season at West Virginia. There, the 6’7″, 210 pound shortstop put up a .286/.343/.488 line with 14 home runs, 25 doubles, a .365 wOBA and 134 wRC+ in 443 plate appearances. Cruz showed off his ability to drive the ball reaching double digits in long balls while also having a .201 isolated slugging percentage. He also showed some speed swiping 11 bases in 16 attempts.
The following season, Cruz started out the year at High-A where he collected 145 plate appearances, blasting seven home runs while putting up a .301/.343/.515 batting line and 154 wRC+. He was slowed down by a fractured foot and this showed when he was promoted to Double-A. He still put up a solid .269/.346/.412 line for a 120 wRC+ and .339 wOBA in 136 plate appearances, but his isolated slugging percentage dropped from .213 at Bradenton to just .143 at Altoona.
On a positive note, Cruz started to show more plate discipline. His walk rate rose from 5.7% at High-A to 11% at Double-A while his strikeout rate went from 26.2% to 25.7%. While the game power didn’t show up in the later part of the year, the raw power was still there as he averaged 92.4 MPH off the bat in 2019.
Among all his tools, his arm is the best, not just for him but for the rest of the top shortstop prospects. MLB Pipeline currently gives it a 70 grade. He’s also considered an average fielder at short with a 50-grade. While his hit tool is seen as a 50, he has a 60 power grade and 55 run grade. MLB Pipeline also states that during his time at the alternative camp, Cruz and his coaches started working on improving his chase rates while “commiting to a game plan and approach for each at-bat”, which showed positive results.
The question still remains where Cruz’s long term position will be with the Pittsburgh Pirates. While he might make his debut as a shortstop, his 6’7″ frame would make him the tallest regular shortstop ever. MLB Pipeline had the following to say about Cruz remaining at shortstop for now:
"“Everyone has been waiting for Cruz to move off of his position at shortstop. His close to top-of-the-scale arm works just fine and despite his size has shown the ability to make plays. One of the reasons to keep him in the infield for now is to encourage him to stay engaged in every pitch, with maturity perhaps the only thing keeping him from truly unlocking his tremendous potential.”"
This especially became a question once the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Liover Peguero in the Starling Marte deal. Peguero is considered a better fielder than Cruz and has more of a typical shortstop build standing at 6’1″, 160 pound frame. While he’s yet to fully fill out, Peugero has a similar ETA to Cruz with MLB Pipeline putting both at 2022. Though the Pirates will see Cruz sometime in 2021, the point is that both will be teammates at the same time, likely for a handful of seasons.
Cruz has experience at third base, his primary position before the trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, with Ke’Bryan Hayes the long term answer at the hot corner, Cruz likely wouldn’t see anything more than occasional time there when Hayes had the day off or was injured. That leaves a corner outfield spot. Currently, the outfield situation is a bit crowded now with Hudson Head as one of the team’s best prospects.
Regardless of where Cruz ends up, he has some of the highest offensive potential of any other shortstop prospect. As MLB Pipeline said, the only thing that has prevented him from fully unlocking it is maturity and experience.