I also had a more explorative column, looking at what the shortstop position even is in today’s game.
Regardless of his position, Cruz will always have his value driven by the bat. The Pirates have been trying him at shortstop for a few years — an experiment that has carried over into the new front office. Now, Cruz is getting work in the outfield, which he doesn’t like.
The Pirates are still using Cruz primarily as a shortstop. When he arrives in the majors, it will probably be as a shortstop. The question is how long he can remain at the position.
That’s the question I asked the Pirates Prospects team this week in a bonus edition of Prospect Roundtable:
What do you think will eventually move Oneil Cruz off shortstop? How long do you think he can play the position in the majors?
I think the main reason that Cruz will eventually move off of shortstop is that Liover Peguero is a better defender and is looking more like a Major League player as he has reached the upper level and has shown in a small sample size that he belongs. While I’ve never been high on Cruz’s defense at shortstop, he appears to have taken a step back this year. I’ve seen Mason Martin save him at least three errors with outstanding plays, and the official scorer has been kind as well. In the past, his defense was serviceable enough that if the bat played up, you can overlook the defense. He’s not being blocked by anyone now, and his defense can’t do any harm to a team with 70-win dreams, but it would be best to get him off of the position now so he gets better wherever he ends up. If it’s the outfield, then we have recently seen that he’s going to need some major work there before he is ready.
This is a tough question to answer, because this team’s decisions about whom to play where have been completely random and devoid of any connection to players’ abilities. Based strictly on Cruz himself, I’d say he’d probably last 3-4 years at short. The error total is always going to be high, largely due to wild throws, but the potential in getting that bat at a premium position should outweigh the errors. Cruz is much more capable at the position that scouts thought he’d be, mainly because he’s an outstanding athlete with a cannon arm. When the early-20s quickness and reflexes start to decline, though, he’ll have to move. This isn’t a prediction, of course, because Cruz will be playing for a team with incoherent personnel strategies and you can’t predict incoherence. My guess is he’ll never get established at short because Derek Shelton will continue to insist on everybody playing everywhere except where they ought to be. At some point in the next two years, Liover Peguero will probably take over at short.
I think the biggest thing about Cruz is the accuracy of his throws. He’s been bailed out by Mason Martin a few times on some throws, and got some generous scoring on others that bailed him out of a few extra errors. I don’t discount his ability to stay there long-term, but it’s going to take constant work, and the Pirates will have to live with some routine plays getting booted at times. Due to his size and athleticism, Cruz also has the potential to make plays that no other shortstop can make, keeping just enough intrigue to keep him there. As far as how long he stays at the position, I could see a move to the outfield around the time if/when the team becomes competitive once again and can’t afford to live with the errors as much as they would be in their current phase of the rebuild.
As I wrote earlier this week, Oneil Cruz can play a serviceable shortstop at the big league level today. He will not be outstanding, but he will not fall on his face either. Errors will come and he will not have strong range. However, as Tim also wrote, the shift changes some of that requirement for a shortstop. One of the major concerns with Cruz at shortstop for me is how his body will change. We all know, he is very tall. We also know he has a lot of power. Getting even bigger, and also older, will only put more strain on everything needed in the middle infield. In order to remain an elite hitter, which is his biggest value, he will have to eventually move off short. I would put the clock on this, with him already being a few months away from 24, at three to four years until it takes a toll on him.
I was there for the beginning of this experiment. When Cruz arrived with the Pirates in 2017, he was a third baseman. I remember seeing him play in one of his early games, thinking that the only thing holding him back from the infield might be his height putting him further from ground balls. And then the Pirates decided to try him at shortstop. That experiment was met with immediate questioning, mostly due to his height. It’s similar to the concerns I had when he was at third base. Since the experiment started, Cruz has shown that he can handle the grounders, and can make some plays that other shortstops can’t. A lot of his errors this year have been on throws, which has nothing to do with height, though it could be a result of bad fundamentals from the entire process of fielding a grounder. Liover Peguero has a more common shortstop build and profile, which is why he gets projected into the role more often. However, Peguero also has been having error issues this year, with three more than Cruz at the moment. I don’t see any reason why Cruz should move off the shortstop position right now. I also think that Peguero should move him off the position eventually, though I think it’s unfair to Cruz to assume he will inevitably move due to his errors, while glossing over the errors from Peguero. I think that Peguero has more defensive potential, but I feel like Peguero gets graded on that potential, while Cruz gets graded on mistakes that would be overlooked for Peguero. Cruz will eventually move off the position as he fills out and gets slower, which probably gives him about 3-4 years as a starter at the position in the big leagues anyway. Eventually, he will need that outfield work.