Pittsburgh Pirates: Oneil Cruz Impressing at Double-A

BRADENTON, FLORIDA - MARCH 02: Oneil Cruz #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates swings at a pitch during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers during a spring training game at LECOM Park on March 02, 2021 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
BRADENTON, FLORIDA - MARCH 02: Oneil Cruz #61 of the Pittsburgh Pirates swings at a pitch during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers during a spring training game at LECOM Park on March 02, 2021 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /
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Pittsburgh Pirates’ top shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz has gotten off to a ripping hot start to the 2021 season at Double-A Altoona.

There are few players in the highly touted farm system the Pittsburgh Pirates have that possesses a higher ceiling than shortstop Oneil Cruz. So far this season Cruz has been crushing it with Double-A Altoona. The towering 6’7″, 210-pound middle infielder’s outstanding starts to the season is one of the most promising developments for the Pirates, especially considering where he was just a few months ago.

Not only was he involved in a deadly car crash that, at one point, left him originally looking like the primary reason for the crash happening, he also struggled throughout Dominican Winter League, and Spring Training. At the DWL, Cruz only had a .607 OPS and no home runs, and an awful 1-14 BB/K ratio in 50 trips to the plate. Down at Bradenton in March, Cruz had just 3 hits in 16 games.

However, the story has been completely different at Altoona so far. In 125 plate appearances, Cruz is hitting .286/.355/.554 with 7 home runs, 5 doubles, 2 triples, a .394 wOBA, and 144 wRC+. He’s showing off that raw power potential with a fantastic .268 isolated slugging. Cruz has been a top 25 hitter down at his level. He currently ranks 23rd in wRC+, 28th in wOBA, 20th in OPS, and 27th in ISO (min. 100 PA).

Cruz is still striking out a decent amount of time. His 24.8% strikeout rate isn’t the most promising mark. However, what is promising is that he’s drawing more walks. Cruz currently has an 8.8% walk rate. This is nearly a 1% increase from 2019 and a 1.4% increase from 2018. Cruz needs to cut down on strikeouts, but also ground balls. Cruz has always had a bit of a high ground ball rate, posting a 53.9% ground ball rate thus far in 2021.

Despite that, Cruz is on pace for a 30/30 season in the minor leagues. He is considered the best power-hitting prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates have in their farm system. He has a 60-future game power grade, which is tied with first base prospect Mason Martin, and an 80-future raw power grade, tied for the highest mark among all prospects. He only has a 35-grade hit tool, stemming from his poor strikeout rate.

As a defender, Cruz can play the shortstop position. He can get to the ball and has an 80-grade arm, so he has the raw arm strength to make the deep throws from the position as well. But many of his errors this year have been because of inaccurate throws. Obviously, errors aren’t the best way to show who’s a good fielder and who isn’t a good fielder, but him not making accurate throws from a position where fielding is vital isn’t a good sign.

Cruz did see some time in the outfield during Spring Training and although he hasn’t played any innings in the grass this year, he’ll likely at least get some time there later this season. The Pirates are at least considering the move early given that they put him in the outfield in March.

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Oneil Cruz’s strat to the 2021 season is one of the most promising starts for any of the Pirates’ top prospects. Cruz should be at Triple-A before the end of the season. He’s still pretty young as he won’t turn 23 until early October. But he should still be one of the Pirates’ highest-ranking prospects. His hot start should move him up prospect boards as well.

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