Pittsburgh Pirates: Oneil Cruz Starting to Play in the Outfield

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 18: Oneil Cruz #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians at PNC Park on July 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 18: Oneil Cruz #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians at PNC Park on July 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /
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Pittsburgh Pirates top shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz is starting to make the transition to the outfield as he’s starting to get playing time in the grass.

One of the most talented prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates have in their highly touted farm system in Oneil Cruz. Cruz is seen as one of the Pirates’ top position player prospects and it looks like the team is now willing to experiment with the shortstop at other positions. Cruz got the start in center field on Thursday and moved from shortstop to center on Wednesday.

Cruz, simply put, is the Pittsburgh Pirates best power hitting prospect. While he hasn’t put up insane power numbers in the minors, he still has shown the ability to demolish the baseball with a .201 isolated slugging percentage in 2018, and .213 ISO mark at High-A in 2019. Overall through 2019, he had a 91 MPH exit velocity and 50% hard hit rate. Cruz has a 40/60 current/future game power grade while having a 70/80 raw power grade. Cruz can generate light tower power from his hulking 6’7, 215 pound frame.

In Cruz’s last season in the minors, the slugger hit .298/.356/.475 with 8 home runs, 15 doubles and a .345 wOBA through 292 plate appearances. Cruz played with both Bradenton and Altoona, but was limited due to a fractured foot. This could have been part of the reason he saw a decline in power when he was promoted to Double-A as his ISO dropped to just .143. However despite the drop in power, he saw his walk rate reach 11% compared to just 5.5% at Bradenton and 7.7% throughout 2018. His hit tool comes in at just a 35-grade on FanGraphs, but MLB Pipeline has it at a 50 grade. If he can continue the high walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate below 25%, then he could see an upgrade to his hit tool.

Although a fractured foot and high strikeout rate is far from the only adversity Cruz has had to face in his young professional career. Just this past winter, Cruz was in a supposedly drunk driving accident that left 3 dead, the three of whom were all on the same motorcycle. However, it turned out there was no evidence of Cruz being under the influence. You can read a timeline of events relating to the incident here.

Cruz’s frame would make him the tallest player to man shortstop regularly. Although he can field the position, the worry is more if his body could handle the everyday grind of such a physically demanding position. A move to the outfield has long been speculated by fans. Cruz can run well for his size having a 60-current speed grade. Although as he fills out his frame, he could lose a few steps as FanGraphs only projects him as a 45-grade runner in the future. Cruz also has a cannon on his shoulder with an 80-grade arm so a move to the outfield would allow him to still utilize his throwing ability.

Plus, the Pittsburgh Pirates have Liover Peguero in the system, a shortstop who projects as a much better fielder at the position even if he doesn’t have similar power potential with his bat. However, Cruz’s bat would play up at a position like centerfield just like it would at shortstop. Although long term, Cruz may move to a corner outfield spot. The Pirates have up and coming centerfield prospects like Travis Swaggerty and Hudson Head in the system. Cruz also played a fair bit of third base when he was a Los Angeles Dodgers prospect, but hasn’t played the position since 2017. Even then, he’s blocked at the major league level by Ke’Bryan Hayes.

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This feels like it’s been a long time coming. Cruz has the tools to be an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the long run. He’ll likely get familiar with the outfield in Spring Training and get more regular time in the grass this year in the minors. Regardless, it should be fun to watch Cruz demolish baseballs at PNC Park in the next year or so.

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