Pittsburgh Pirates Should Keep Oneil Cruz at Premium Defensive Position

Mar 3, 2021; Port Charlotte, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (61) throws the ball for an out during the fourth inning at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2021; Port Charlotte, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (61) throws the ball for an out during the fourth inning at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /
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Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Oneil Cruz’s final position is still up for debate, but they should try and keep him to a premium defensive position.

One of the Pittsburgh Pirates best prospects is power hitting shortstop Oneil Cruz. The slugger is ranked as a top 100 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline while ranking at 105 according to FanGraphs. While there’s constant speculation that Cruz will be moved to a corner outfield spot the Pittsburgh Pirates should do all they can to keep Cruz at a premium defensive position.

Cruz hit well throughout his 2019 season. In 292 plate appearances the slugger hit for a .295/.356/.475 slash line, he hit 8 home runs, collected15 doubles and posted a .360 wOBA. Cruz’s overall power was a bit limited throughout the year with him suffering a fractured foot that kept him out a good chunk of his season.

Cruz generates a lot of raw power from his massive 6’7″, 215 pound frame. The shortstop had a 91 MPH exit velocity and 50% hard hit rate. That would be a 2019 equivalent of Ronald Acuna Jr., J.D. Martinez, or Anthony Rendon just to name a couple of examples. FanGraphs heavily recognizes his power potential. He has the highest current and future game power grades in the Pirates’ organization at 45/60 and best current and raw power grades in the entire MLB at 70/80.

However, FanGraphs only projects his hit tool as a 35-grade tool. MLB Pipeline grades it out as a stronger 50-grade tool, but overall, it’s one of his weakest areas of his game. It also doesn’t help that he has so-so plate discipline. Between 2018 and 2019, Cruz walked at an 8% rate and struck out at a 23.7% rate. While those aren’t awful marks, they could be better. Granted, this was during his age-19 and 20 seasons.

While Cruz could definitely be one of baseball’s more prolific power hitters his ability to reach base consistently may be in question. He projects more of a .260/.330/.500 hitter with 30-35 home runs. That production is comparable to Joey Gallo, Jose Abreu and Gleyber Torres from 2018-2020.

So far in his professional career Cruz has played primarily shortstop. He played a decent amount of third base early in his pro career, but hasn’t seen an inning at the hot corner since 2017. During Grapefruit League games Cruz has been starting to see time in the outfield.

While he isn’t a Cole Tucker fielder at short, he can handle himself at short. MLB Pipeline sees him as a 50-grade fielder while FanGraphs sees him as a 45-grade fielder. However, he has a cannon of an arm with both sources seeing his arm as an 80-grade tool, the highest grade a player can receive for one of their tools.

The Pittsburgh Pirates should do the best they can to put Cruz in a position where his bat plays up. A .260/.330/.500 hitter with 30 home runs a season is productive, but that production is prettier at shortstop or center field rather than a corner outfield spot or first base. Cruz has already seen playing time at center field too, playing some during Spring Training.

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Cruz is athletic enough to play center field or shortstop to at least start his career. Hopefully when he does slow down, in terms of speed, then he’ll have developed his hitting ability to a point where it will play nicely in a corner outfield position.

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