BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Ben Gamel watched in awe at Oneil Cruz as the 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect dropped almost to one knee before sending a pitch that looked like it was going to bounce in front of home plate sailing over the right-center fence.
The home run Cruz hit in Pittsburgh’s Grapefruit League opener Saturday was almost identical to his first major league homer last October.
“He’s pretty talented, man,” Gamel said of Cruz. “He looks like a big leaguer.”
That’s the plan.
The towering Cruz at shortstop is an anomaly, not just at his position but in his sport. He’s built like a basketball player yet has a rare combination of size, speed, power, athleticism and arm strength that makes it difficult to pigeonhole him.
Regarded as one of the linchpins in Pittsburgh’s rebuilding project, the 23-year-old Cruz projects as the potential five-tool player the Pirates so desperately need after a 101-loss season and third consecutive last-place finish in the NL Central. Cruz has made no secret of his desire to stay in the majors after a cameo appearance last fall.
“That’s the goal, that’s the mindset – not only to reach the big leagues, but stay in the big leagues,” said Cruz, who hit his second home run of the spring on a similar pitch on Monday. “So my mindset right now is working double time.”
The Pirates were impressed with how the native of the Dominican Republic recovered from a forearm strain last summer to slash .292/.346/.536 with 15 doubles, five triples, 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 63 games at Double-A Altoona, so they promoted him to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-September. When he went 11 for 21 (.524) with five homers in six games, the Pirates brought Cruz to Pittsburgh to play the final two games of the season.
In his MLB debut against the Cincinnati Reds, Cruz roped a single that had the highest exit velocity (118.2 mph) in Pirates history in the Statcast era. In the season finale, Cruz drilled a 0-2 changeup 408 feet into the right-field seats at PNC Park.
Cruz, however, is likely ticketed to start the regular season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Pirates manager Derek Shelton called his October call-up for two games a “reward,” which general manager Ben Cherington explained was based on how Cruz responded to challenges laid out to him in spring training last year.
Both Cherington and Shelton have said that they want Cruz to experience playing other positions – primarily in the outfield – which is an experiment better suited to the minor leagues than the majors.
“There’s still development to be had there,” Shelton said. “Oneil is going to have an impact on our club this year at some point. When that is, I don’t think any of us know.”
Cruz’s development was delayed by the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. After spending that summer at the alternate training site in Altoona, he has only 310 at-bats above the Class A level. With Gold Glove finalist Kevin Newman returning at shortstop on a one-year, $1.95 million contract and little chance of contending, the Pirates don’t feel rushed to have Cruz start the season in the majors.
“We’re just excited to see more of Oneil,” Cherington said.
Cruz is adamant about wanting to stay at shortstop. When asked about playing other positions, he said it hadn’t been discussed. Then he dropped his massive hand to mimic fielding a grounder and slapped it.
“I’m gonna stay right there,” Cruz said. “At shortstop.”
Cruz then ticked off a list of players whose style of play he admires: Corey Seager. Manny Machado. Nolan Arenado. Francisco Lindor. All just happen to be infielders. Cruz makes his preference clear.
While Shelton professed his love for Cruz’s confidence, the Pirates have a gaping hole in their lineup in right field after releasing Gregory Polanco last August. Like Cruz, Polanco was a top prospect projected for stardom. Sports Illustrated labeled him “The Next Big Thing.” Instead, he became a bust. If Cruz is willing and able to make the transition to the outfield, that could lead to a quicker path to the majors.
“I feel like I’ve demonstrated a lot,” Cruz said, “but I guess I’ve just got to continue demonstrating.”