ALTOONA, Pa. — At 6-foot-7, Oneil Cruz does not fit the mold of a prototypical shortstop. In fact, he would be the tallest to ever play the position should he make it to the major leagues.
Cruz, the third-ranked prospect in the Pirates’ organization, has made it to Double-A, donning an Altoona jersey and lining up at shortstop every day.
Cruz is far from being the only tall shortstop within the organization to play for the Curve recently, as former Altoona and current Indianapolis shortstop Cole Tucker is 6-foot-3. With the height and position similarity, it’s easy to compare the two, even with their different skill sets.
“I think the power’s a little bit more for Oneil. He can hit the baseball a long way,” Altoona manager Michael Ryan said. “It’s different movements. He’s long and lanky, I mean he’s longer than (Cole) Tucker and I thought he was long at shortstop and you can double that with Oneil. Oneil looks like he’s not moving but he actually is because he can cover so much ground.”
Cruz, 20, isn’t shocked to find himself with the Curve, but it’s a challenge he’s ready for as he adjusts to life in Altoona.
“I feel good, but in the same way I knew with the way I was playing in Bradenton I was ready to come and play in Altoona,” Cruz said through translator and assistant coach Salvador Paniagua.
It’s been quite the journey to get to this point for the Nizao, Dominican Republic native and he’s had to make more than a few adjustments along the way since being signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015.
In July of 2017, Cruz was traded by the Dodgers — with current Altoona reliever Angel German — to the Pirates for Tony Watson. And at the time it was a whirlwind for the prospect.
“At the moment, I was thinking I wasn’t going to play anymore, but I knew there was baseball everywhere,” Cruz said. “No matter what team I play for there, it’s going to be the same. It’s baseball.”
Now after three years of playing baseball in America, Cruz has acclimated himself to the game and the way things are done, but it was far from easy for him at the beginning.
“Its been a little different because in your hometown you play the game with your friends and joking around,” Cruz said. “Now, I’m here and need to find a way to play the game the right way and make that adjustment.”
That adjustment period has found its way back in full force for Cruz in Double-A baseball. Through 14 games with the Curve, he’s slashing .239/.294/.370 after slashing .301/.345/.515 in High-A Bradenton.
“Coming from A-ball to Double-A, the speed of the game is different and he’s starting to recognize that now,” Ryan said. “The ball is going to get on you a little bit now at the plate and guys know when to mix in the off-speed. They can throw it over whenever they want.
“The ball is going to come toward your way at short a little bit harder. They’re good things he’s finding out right about now. It’s impressive he’s 20 years old and hanging in there.”
Even at 20, Cruz is aware of what has to happen to get adjusted to play at the level he’s accustomed to, and in the meantime he’s focused on doing what he can at the plate to get better acclimated.
“The hitting side, the adjustments I’ve had to make,” Cruz said. “In High-A, they threw a lot of fastballs. Here they locate more the off-speed and the fastball. I need to make an adjustment to the hitting side and concentrate on getting better defensively. Sometimes it’s just concentrating more on defense and hitting.”
Cruz is not short on confidence by any means and wholeheartedly believes in his ability to play the game, yet he’s realistic enough to know he’s nowhere near ready to continue up the organizational ladder.
“I know I can play everywhere, but I feel like I’m not ready yet to go to Triple-A,” Cruz said. “I need to get more work and more experience here.”
With experience and age, Cruz will begin to fill out his sleek frame, which will raise questions about him continuing at shortstop. His manager, though, believes shortstop will be Cruz’s permanent home for the Pirates.
“I think that if he stays engaged in each game and each pitch for three hours, he’ll be fine at shortstop,” Ryan said. “That’s where his future is, and until the organization makes a decision to change him, I think he’s going to do very good there.”
In just the small sample size Cruz has provided, it’s easy to see why he was the main target in the Watson trade. He’s got plus speed, plus power, and a plus bat which is a dangerous combination.
CURVE’S TOP HITTERS
Brett Pope, 3B — Pope, 23, was 4 for 7 (.571) over the course of the past week with a run scored. Pope is hitting .250 for Altoona this season.
Bligh Madris, OF — Madris, 23, was 6 for 16 (.375) with three doubles, four runs and an RBI. Madris is hitting .260 with 102 hits for the season.
CURVE’S TOP PITCHERS
Top starting performance: Cody Bolton went five innings shutout innings Thursday night against Richmond, earning his second win in a row. Bolton allowed four hits and struck out two. Bolton is 2-2 with a 4.85 ERA for Altoona this season.
Top reliever: Jesus Liranzo threw four shutout innings in two relief appearances this week, allowing one hit a piece in each outing while striking out six. He’s 2-1 with a 0.44 ERA on the season.
NOTABLE ROSTER MOVES/INJURIES
8/8: INF Robbie Glendinning placed on 7-day injured list. OF Bralin Jackson activated from 7-day injured list.
8/11: C Francisco Cervelli begins MLB Rehab Assignment. RHP Clay Holmes ends MLB Rehab Assignment. RHP Cody Ponce promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. LHP Cam Vieaux assigned to Altoona.
Altoona went 4-3 over its recent home stand to push its record t0 23-28 for the second half of the season and 59-60 overall.
With 21 games remaining, the Curve head to Harrisburg for a three-game set before returning home for the rest of the week to face Bowie. Altoona currently sits 13 games out of first place.