In 2015, Cruz signed with the Dodgers as an international free agent, receiving $950,000 for a bonus, via scouts Patrick Guerrero, Franklin Taveras and Bob Engle. He was 16 years old.
In 2017, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Oneil as the 27th-best prospect in the Dodgers' organization.
After being acquired by the Pirates, Cruz was 22nd-best prospect in their farm system in the winter before 2018 spring training. They moved him all the way up to #3 in both the spring of 2019 and again in 2020. And Oneil moved up to #2, behind only Ke'Bryan Hayes, in 2021.
Cruz moved up to the #1 prospect in the Pirates' system in 2022.
When Rafael Cruz brought his son home from the local hospital in Nizao, D.R., the former Minor League infielder put an old leather baseball glove by the newborn’s crib. The son was going to be a ballplayer, just like his father, Rafael said. It was his destiny. And it didn’t matter if the kid grew up to throw with his right hand or left hand, but he was definitely going to hit left-handed just like his father’s baseball idol, Paul O’Neill.
Rafael even named his son after the Yankees great. Twenty years later, Pirates shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz is busy making his own mark. “I really liked Paul O’Neill as a player,” Rafael, 53, said in Spanish from his home in the Dominican Republic. “The way he played and his form. His style. I identified with him and followed him. I became a big fan.”
Oneil throws from the right side, just like his father, and he’s a left-handed hitter because his father trained him to hit that way. Rafael, who played three seasons in Minors with the Rangers in the mid-1980s, hit from both sides of the plate.
“From the time he was a little boy, I took him to the park so he could play and see what he was going to get into it,” Rafael said. “I’d take him everywhere and he grew up with baseball around him. It’s our family passion. I played. We have had uncles and cousins who were all players, but none of us made it to the big leagues. It would be great if Oneil was the first one.”
At 6-foot-6, Oneil has a chance to be the tallest regular starting shortstop at the highest level on record if he can make it to the Major Leagues. The odds appear to be in his favor. The 20-year-old has as much raw power as anyone in the Pirates’ farm system.
The Pirates plan on keeping the tall infielder at the shortstop until further notice. “He’s come a long way in a lot of areas,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said. “He’s learning to show up for every pitch at shortstop, learning how to better control his hitting zone, learning how to prepare overall. He’s dealt with some injuries and has come out on the other side ready to compete and take the next step forward.” (Sanchez - mlb.com - 8/20/19)
Oneil was working with Dominican Republic trainer Raul “Banana” Valera when the Dodgers found him several years ago. The teen was wiry and athletic and probably six inches shorter than he stands today. What stood out was his loose, adjustable swing and how the ball jumped off of his bat with little effort. He walks with confidence now and he plays with style and flair, but he was mostly shy and quiet during those early days with the Dodgers.
Experience made him a leader. He has assumed the role of big brother to his teammates, especially the ones from Latin America. “I am happy and thankful to have the opportunity to play professional baseball it was always my dream,” Cruz said. “I want to establish myself in the big leagues and help my team win.”
“The biggest adjustment was being traded from the Dodgers to the Pirates,” Cruz said. “I had to get to know new teammates and coaches. I made adjustments at the plate with the Pirates. Also, every level you get promoted the pitchers are better and throw better off-speed.”
Like most players his age, he's working on the finer points of being a professional ballplayer. “I think it’s great for him to realize that there are players out there right now that are better than him, and he can’t just rely on skill to get through the upper levels or get away with things when he gets to the Major Leagues,” Altoona manager Michael Ryan said. “He’s only 20 years old. It’s crazy. You see how long and athletic he is, you see what he can do on the field, you just try to mix in the proper work and try to prepare him for the speed of the game.”
When Cruz isn’t on the field or at the gym, he’s on the phone with his father and siblings. Oneil’s brother, Homer, plays in the Dominican Summer League for the White Sox. His youngest brother, Rafael Jr., will be eligible to sign during the 2020 international signing period.
There’s also lots of baby talk with Oneil Cruz Jr., the infielder’s 1-year-old son. Someday, Junior will follow his father’s footsteps into the family business. The littlest Oneil will also get to hear all about grandpa’s favorite player and how his father took ownership of the name game.
“I don’t know anything about Paul O’Neill,” Oneil Cruz said. “That’s all my dad.” (Sanchez - mlb.com - 8/20/19)
Sept 30, 2019: It’s a conversation Oneil Cruz has had countless times in his time as a professional baseball player. At 6-foot-6, he stands out on any field he’s on, especially when he trots out to his natural position: shortstop.
“A lot of people ask me [about it], even players,” said Cruz, the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect and No. 58 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. “Whenever I answer that I’m a shortstop, people say, ‘No, I can’t believe that.’ “People on the street will ask me if I play basketball or some other sport. I say, ‘No, I play baseball.’ Then they ask, ‘What position do you play?’ ‘I play shortstop.’ And people are shocked about it. I feel really confident about it.”
Cruz, has brought that confidence to the Peoria Javelinas and the Arizona Fall League. He’s easy to spot, towering over 5-foot-8 coach Corey Wimberly, the Red Sox Minor League manager who coaches first for the Javelinas. He puts on a show during batting practice, a sign of the tremendous raw power he has that he’s just learning how to tap into, then shows holes in his swings in games that have led to 10 strikeouts in 21 at-bats. He’ll show extremely smooth actions going to the hole during infield drills, then will make a throwing error in the game. In other words, he’s like any young player trying to figure things out while moving quickly through a system.
“It’s an exciting moment, like getting called up an extra level, like Double-A or Triple-A,” Cruz said about coming to the AFL. “I’m just trying to make adjustments. The game speeds up a little bit like an extra level, better pitching. I’m just trying to make adjustments to make it to the big leagues.”
Cruz is no stranger to having to adjust to a new level. The Pirates were confident enough to move Cruz up from Class A Advanced Bradenton in the Florida State League to Double-A Altoona in the Eastern League after he hit .301/.345/.515 in 35 games. His numbers dipped to .269/.346/.412 in 35 games at the new level, and Cruz is continuing to work on refining his approach this fall so he can master that level in 2020.
“I was very excited about getting called up to Double-A because I didn’t expect any movement after the injury,” Cruz said.
The injury, a fractured right foot caused by a collision with a baserunner while playing shortstop, meant Cruz only was able to play 70 games all year, with the AFL giving him the chance to make up for some of those lost at-bats. It was the first trip to the injured list for the infielder, and it was a long two-month stay there. That can be tough for a young player, but Cruz was able to get through it and he was very happy to return to action.
“I got very frustrated because I didn’t expect to get injured.,” Cruz said. “When I got injured, a lot of people talked to me about it. I knew I needed to get better and get out of the injury because it’s 90 percent a mental game and I got very frustrated, but thankfully a lot of people helped me, I got out of it and did really well.” (J Mayo - MLB.com - Sept 30, 2019)
2019 Season: Cruz, acquired from the Dodgers as part of the Tony Watson trade in 2017, is the Bucs’ No. 3 prospect and ranked 57th overall, according to MLB Pipeline. The 21-year-old is a fascinating prospect, from his size to his defensive future (currently a shortstop, though most evaluators expect that to change in time) and the tantalizing tools that allowed him to hit .298/.356/.475 with eight homers and 11 steals in 73 games this past season. Cruz began the year in Class A Advanced Bradenton and finished with Altoona, where he’ll likely return to start in 2020.
Oneil was practically fated to be a ballplayer. The No. 64 prospect in the game was given his name because his father was a big fan of Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill. He's far from the only one with a baseball-inspired name in the family: His brother is named Homer and plays in the White Sox system.
Oh yeah, and if the 6-foot-7 Cruz does make his big league debut at shortstop, he would become the tallest player to ever regularly play the position. Only Joel Guzman, who played a total of nine innings at the position, has also done it. (Clair - mlb.com - 5/17/2020)
Sept. 23, 2020: The Pirates received a brutal blow when one of their top prospects was involved in an accident that killed three people.
When Dominican Republic investigators found Oneil Cruz was driving under the influence of alcohol and past a Covid-19 curfew when he crashed into a motorcycle carrying two men and a woman on a highway, the 21-year-old’s promising career suddenly was in jeopardy.
The Pirates said in a statement Cruz was “cooperating fully with the local authorities” and that they would “provide an update as more information becomes available.” But the team provided no updates Wednesday, when a virtual hearing was postponed.
“Obviously, we care about anybody in the Pirates organization,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “I don’t think it’s fair in this situation to comment until we have all the information available because it is an ongoing situation. Until that point comes up, we won’t make any further comments on it.”
The news sent shockwaves throughout PNC Park, even though Cruz wasn’t on the Major League roster. MLB.com ranks the shortstop as the No. 3 prospect in the organization and No. 60 overall. And as a member of the 40-man roster, he spent the summer at their alternate training camp in Altoona.
“I don’t have too much information about that yet, but I heard the news and that affected me a lot,” said Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco, a fellow Dominican who expected Cruz to join the Pirates when the alternate camp broke. “That was hard for me. When we got back from Cincinnati and I saw the other guys that were down there in Altoona with him, I asked them, ‘Where’s Oneil?’ They said, ‘No, he went back to the Dominican.’ Now, that happened and I was like, wow . . ."
Cruz could become the third rising international star the Pirates have lost to legal troubles, following the arrests of third baseman Jung Ho Kang in 2016 and closer Felipe Vazquez last September. (Kevin Gorman)
May 2021: Oneil was honest and forthcoming with officials investigating the accident.
“He’s been fully cooperative with everything he’s had to be cooperative with in the aftermath of the accident,” Pirates GM Ben Cherington said. “And then I think his preferred response in what we’re helping him and supporting him on is to pour his energy into his game.”
2020 Season: Cruz turned heads in spring training, not only for the obvious in trying to become the tallest shortstop in major league history but also his prodigious power at the plate and speed on the bases.
The No. 3 prospect in the Pirates’ organization by MLB.com, Cruz hit two doubles, a home run and had four RBIs but batted only .208 (5 of 24) in 16 Grapefruit League games. The Pirates optioned him to Triple-A Indianapolis before the shutdown, and he spent the summer at the alternate training site in Altoona.
Cruz never got a call-up in September but made headlines when he was involved in an accident that killed three people in his native Dominican Republic. Cruz was driving after a curfew mandated by the coronavirus when his SUV crashed into the back of a motorcycle carrying two men and a woman that reportedly didn’t have headlights or tail lights on the Baní-San Cristóbal section of the Sánchez highway in the D.R.
According to initial reports, Cruz was driving under the influence of alcohol. Cruz was arrested but released on $34,000 bail. Both Pirates GM Ben Cherington and Cruz’s private attorney have contested that alcohol was involved, and the club has pledged its support for Cruz.
“It’s a tragic accident and our hearts go out to the victims,” Cherington said. “And ‘accident’ is the word to emphasize. There is no indication or any piece of evidence that we’ve seen that suggests it’s anything but an accident. Oneil is a young player and a young person now that has been through something very traumatic, and we’re going to continue to work with him, support him through it. He’s been incredibly cooperative throughout this, done everything that’s been asked of him, so that’s all the information we have right now.”
Cherington said in September that the Pirates had “no reason to believe Cruz wouldn’t be available for spring training,” and offered no further updates on Cruz earlier this week. Cruz will play winter ball in the Dominican for Los Gigantes del Cibao starting in November.
The future: The first big question for Cruz is whether he will be allowed to continue playing professional baseball or face jail time. If permitted to play, the next question is this: Which position?
For now, the Pirates plan to keep him at shortstop. That’s the preference for Cruz, despite his height.
“For me, it’s the funnest and best position in baseball,” Cruz said in spring training, through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I’ve always seen it like that since I was a child, mostly since there was so much action going on, constantly moving around, so I enjoy it a lot.
“No one’s directly told me, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about moving you around or trying new positions.’ I have had a few people bring it up, just here and there, but my focus is shortstop. I really don’t care to play any other position. I want to do everything possible to maintain myself right there playing shortstop.”
Despite drafting Nick Gonzales as a shortstop with the No. 7 overall pick in the MLB Draft, the Pirates’ plan was to keep Cruz at shortstop in Altoona this summer.
“Part of that was because we believe he has a chance to do that because he has done it. He’s played defense at plenty a good enough level to project him as a major league shortstop,” Cherington said. “So that was our thinking coming into the year and then wanting to keep them at that position for as long as we can. And then of course the season got canceled, but that’s where he got his reps in Altoona, for the most part. So my expectation is he would come into spring training as a shortstop.”
Cherington allows that the Pirates have a surplus of shortstops, with Erik Gonzalez, Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, and that Cruz could eventually end up playing another position. Cruz has been projected as a potential replacement for Josh Bell at first base or Gregory Polanco in right field, but the Pirates are intrigued by him at short.
“He is a different-looking shortstop because of how big he is, but he has really good instincts for the position,” Cherington said. “He has a knack of getting his body in a position to make plays. He does it differently than other players, has to do it differently because of his size. He’s got great arm strength. He shows a pretty good defensive clock — awareness of the runner and when he needs to get to the ball and get rid of it. His range is solid. His hands are plenty good.
“If on the back of his baseball card it said that he’s 6-2 instead of 6-7, I’m not sure the question would come up. But it says 6-7, so the question comes up. Long-term, if we have multiple people who can play shortstop and they’re all good, then we’ll have to figure out … it will be a good problem to have and we’ll have to figure out a place for him to play. But we don’t have any information that tells us right now that he shouldn’t be a shortstop.” (Kevin Gorman - November 5, 2020)
Oct 2, 2021: The most anticipated callup of the Pirates’ 2021 season is finally here.
The Pirates promoted shortstop Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh’s No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline, to the Major League roster with two games left to play.
Cruz, the No. 52 overall prospect, leaves Triple-A Indianapolis in the midst of a fiery stretch to end a strong Minor League season. The phenom hit five homers in his final six games with the Indians.
"I always make this joke when someone says, 'Oh, that's crazy [how Oneil] Cruz is doing this,’ said Pirates No. 18 prospect Cal Mitchell, Cruz’s teammate this season. “I say, 'Well, that's what happens when Kevin Durant was born in the Dominican and decided to be a baseball player.'"
Over 68 games played between Double-A Altoona and Indianapolis, Cruz recorded a .310 average with a .970 OPS fueled by 17 homers. The Pirates have kept the Dominican native at his natural shortstop position, but his 70-grade arm and 16 errors in 59 games this season have raised questions about a potential move to the outfield.
Cruz missed a good portion of the season with a right elbow injury, and the 22-year-old was slow-played back into the field with some DH appearances after he was activated on Aug. 20.
Now, the tall, strong slugger is on the fast track to the Majors. (J Crouse - MLB.com - Oct 2, 2021)
2021 Season: The Pirates voted him the No. 1 prospect in their farm system who posted a .970 OPS this season, as the winner of the Willie Stargell Slugger of the Year Award. The award is named for the Hall of Famer who led the Pirates to two World Series championships, won the 1979 NL MVP and finished his 21-year career with 475 home runs.
Cruz, 23, hit a combined .310 (84-for-271) with 16 doubles, five triples, 17 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .594 slugging percentage in 68 games split between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, where he hit five homers in six games before making his major league debut Oct. 2. (Kevin Gorman - Oct. 27, 2021)
Feb 10, 2022: Pirates most athletic prospect - Oneil Cruz, SS (No. 3, MLB No. 52)
He’s a unicorn, a 6-foot-7 middle infielder that the world has been waiting to get pushed off of shortstop, but who has every chance to begin his big league career in earnest at the premium position. He has ridiculous raw power that he’s still figuring out and can steal a base, all while making plays defensively a guy his size has no business executing. (Mayo, Callis, Dykstra - MLB.com - Feb 10, 2022)
Cruz has freakishly good power, as he showed in a game last season when he mashed a 400-foot homer practically from one knee. Teammates say he might be the fastest guy in the organization. His throws from short have been known to tear through first baseman Mason Matin’s mitt.
At 6-feet-7, Cruz will be the tallest shortstop in the majors. Lithe and lanky, his mechanics sometimes get out of whack in the field — he made 14 errors this year at Indianapolis. With elite shortstop prospect Liover Peguero excelling at Double A, Cruz might eventually move to the outfield. (Biertempfel, Pittsburgh Pirates beat writer-TheAthletic.com- June 19th, 2022)
June 20, 2022: In his eagerly anticipated season debut, a game the Pirates won 12-1 over the Cubs, Cruz looked every bit the potential star. The numbers—two hits, two runs, four RBIs—were fantastic. But they were only half the joy. He ran hard. He hit the ball hard. He threw the ball hard. There was substance to the hype, and if this game is any indication of what’s to come, the future looks like a lot of fun.
“When you start to see these kids come up . . . but to see them come up and start to piece it together, it makes you smile a little bit,” said manager Derek Shelton. Every single one of Cruz’s tools was on display on a night when he was a walking highlight.
He's established himself as a Statcast superstar, and in his first game this season, he’s already out here setting records. On his third-inning assist on a Willson Contreras groundout, Cruz threw the ball 96.7 mph across the diamond. That’s the hardest-thrown ball on any infield assist this season, and the third-hardest since the stat first began to be recorded in 2015.
“The way it hangs in the air is a little bit different,” said first baseman Michael Chavis, who received the throw. “The same way with a guy that's pitching, a guy that throws really hard, it hangs up on it a little more, the ride or whatever you want to call it. It's pretty much the same thing where I thought it was going to go down, and it just hung.”
There was also his track meet of a second inning. Cruz recorded a sprint speed of 30.7 ft/sec. when he reached on an error, 29.9 ft/sec. going from first-to-third, then capped it off with 31.5 ft/sec. scoring on a sacrifice fly. For context, 30 ft/sec. is considered elite. Even with all the numbers, the eye test would have sufficed.
If the arm strength and sprint speed weren’t enough, Cruz's bases-clearing double had an exit velocity of 112.9 mph, the hardest hit ball by a Pirate this season. He’s almost single-handedly breaking Statcast and, well, he wouldn’t mind doing so.
”Whatever’s going to get broken is going to get broken,” the Dominican native Cruz said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez.
“Guy’s unreal,” raved outfielder Bligh Madris prior to the game in which the fellow Bucs rookie became the first MLB player from Palau. “He has tools that come around once every 100 years. He’s special, to say the least. He can do things with the bat. He can hit pitches out of the ballpark that some guys are lucky to get out of the infield. It’s unbelievable being able to see what he can do.” (JD Santos - MLB.com - June 21, 2022)
Sept 30, 2022: Oneil Cruz looked at the box with childlike wonderment. As he sat down in the PNC Park press conference room, he put his ear to the sealed package and shook it a couple times. The box was light. There was no banging, no clanking.
He grabbed the pair of awaiting scissors and methodically sliced the tape on the top of the box, then one of the sides. Instead of ripping the box open, he peered inside. When he realized what the box contained, he quickly slammed the lid shut in disbelief. He collected himself, then ripped the box open to reveal its contents: a signed jersey from Paul O’Neill, the ballplayer of whom his name derives.
A week after the two met via FaceTime at Yankee Stadium, O’Neill had a little something extra in store for Cruz, a gift that the 23-year-old was not anticipating. Cruz plans to frame the jersey back home in the Dominican Republic and place it “somewhere everyone can walk in and see it.” “I really didn’t think it was a jersey,” Cruz said through team director of communications Melissa Strozza. “I thought it was something else.”
O’Neill found out he was the inspiration for Cruz’s name several years ago. The five-time All-Star has heard stories of pets being named after him, but never a newborn.
“I actually thought that somebody was joking because it’s not something that happens,” O’Neill said. “You’re always honored that someone took a liking to the way you played. The story of his father loving the Yankees, I thought that was cool. Then, when I saw the type of prospect that he was, I mean, this is going to be fun for me to watch for years to come. His talent is unbelievable.”
O’Neill has yet to watch Cruz play a Major League game in-person, but he has quickly become a fan of Cruz’s game.
“Tool-wise, he’s hit the hardest ball known to man at this point. He’s throwing a ball over 98 miles per hour from shortstop. He’s 6-foot-7, 220 pounds and he’s only going to get bigger and stronger as he gets older,” O’Neill said. “The things he’s capable of doing, you kind of project where he’s going to be. It should be an amazing story. He has so much talent. He’s getting an opportunity with a team that’s not real successful now, but he’ll blossom into something. Hopefully, that’s who they’ll build that team around." (JD Santos - MLB.com - Sept 30, 2022)
2022 Season: The 6’7”, 22-year-old Cruz regularly set records on exit velocity and throwing speed and finished with a pretty nice line in 2022. Across 87 games, Cruz hit .233 with 17 homers and 54 RBIs. Extrapolate that out to a full season and you have a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy, and he’s barely old enough to legally drink.
He hit 13 doubles, 4 triples and also stole 11 bases, illustrating his athleticism, and the golf shots he regularly smacked over the wall at PNC were a thing of beauty.
Cruz was not without his negatives, however, as he struck out 126 times in 331 at bats, which is obviously way, way too high. He also committed 17 errors in the field, and time will tell if he’s able to remain at shortstop or if he’ll eventually end up in the outfield.
Regardless, Cruz is a major part of the future for the Bucs, and the youngster should only get better, as we saw his average rise over the back half of the season (he was batting under .200 at one point) as he continued to get more comfortable. (Darren Yuvan@DarrenYuvan Oct 16, 2022)
Nov 13, 2022: It may be the offseason, but Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz hasn’t stopped obliterating baseballs.
Cruz’s latest impressive display of power came during a softball game in the Dominican Republic, per a video shared on Twitter by reporter Héctor Gómez. In the clip, Cruz crushes a colossal home run to right-center field and takes the time to admire his work while slowly making his way up the first-base line.
A native of Nizao, D.R., Cruz only has 89 games under his belt in the Majors, but he’s already made quite an impression, setting Statcast (since 2015) records for the hardest-hit ball and the hardest-thrown infield assist along with myriad additional feats that set the internet ablaze.
The 6-foot-7 24-year-old finished 2022 with a .233 average, 17 homers, 54 RBIs and a .744 OPS, including a .288/.359/.525 slash, six homers and 19 RBIs over 29 games in September/October. (T Harrigan - MLB.com - Nov 13, 2022)
Dec 26, 2022: Pirates player poised to breakout in 2023: SS Oneil Cruz
Cruz is the obvious pick, but he’s the obvious pick for a good reason. In his rookie season, Cruz hit 17 home runs and stole 10 bases in 87 games. Over a full season, that amounts to 32 home runs and 19 steals. Aside from the raw counting stats, Cruz settled in as the season went along, an improvement that’s evident when you split his season in half. In his first 43 games, Cruz hit .209/.254/.424 with nine homers and an 85 wRC+. In his next 44 games, he hit .254/.328/.474 with eight homers and a 124 wRC+. If Cruz, 24, can take a step forward in 2023, a 30-homer, 20-steal season is well within the realm of possibility. (Justice delos Santos - MLB.com - Dec 26, 2022)
In 2015, Cruz signed with the Dodgers as an international free agent, receiving $950,000 for a bonus, via scouts Patrick Guerrero, Franklin Taveras and Bob Engle. He was 16 years old.
- July 31, 2017: The Pirates traded LHP Tony Watson to the Dodgers for RHP Angel German and INF Oneil Cruz.
|Birth City:||Nizao, D.R.|
|Draft:||2015 - Dodgers - Free agent - Out of the D.R.|
Cruz has a natural feel for hitting. He has a loose, handsy swing and control of the barrel, especially for a tall, lanky lefthanded hitter. He has plus-plus, 70 grade raw power with loft and good leverage. And he has an average 50 grade hit tool.
Cruz has a toolbox that would make any evaluator excited. He has immense raw power from the left side of the plate, with the ability to hit the ball as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the system. Work on his approach started to pay off more in 2021, with a lower strikeout rate and better walk rate, allowing him to start tapping into that power more. The long and lanky infielder runs well and knows how to steal a base. (Spring 2022)
Opposing managers spoke glowingly about Oneil’s confidence at the plate, with several using the term “game changer” to describe the impact he’ll make in the big leagues with his power potential.
He possesses otherworldly raw power, generating elite exit velocities via the leverage created by his long levers. Cruz already owns the Pirates’ record for exit velocity in the Statcast era—a 118.2 mph single in his debut. And he's capable of producing 30-homer seasons in his peak. He’ll always battle swing-and-misses and it’s sometimes exacerbated by his aggressive approach.
O'Neil walked just 7.2 percent of the time with Double-A Altoona in 2021 and tactful pitchers mindful of sequencing can exploit both the inherent length to his swing and his eagerness. One evaluator noted there are times pitchers can catch Cruz guessing while hunting specific pitches, but he showed an ability to make adjustments in his approach throughout an at-bat. (Carlos Collazo - BAPH - Spring, 2022)
Cruz continues to be one of the most fascinating prospects in baseball because of his size, position and, more than anything, offensive potential. The raw power and ability to barrel up the baseball is readily apparent, with an average exit velocity off the bat in 2019 of 92.4 mph equaling that of former Pirates first baseman Josh Bell that season.
The Pirates spent a lot of time with Cruz talking about chase rates and committing to a game plan and approach for each at-bat during his time at the alternate camp last summer, with positive results. (Spring 2021)
Oneil Cruz is a dynamic prospect due to his elite raw power that comes from his long arms and strength in his hands and wrists. He’s hit for average in the minors, but because of his lanky body and long levers, there are long-term concerns about whether pitchers will find holes in his strike zone to exploit. (Tim Williams - BAPH - Spring, 2021)
- Oneil's bat is what makes him a potential impact player, with what Pirates GM Ben Cherington described as “huge bat speed” and “huge raw power.”
“He has all of the raw ingredients to be a really good hitter—an impact hitter—and have power,” Cherington said. “He’s shown in the minor leagues that his swing decisions and contact are pretty good, too. So it’s not just raw tools. There’s some good data to back it up.” (T. Williams - Baseball America - May 2021)
Cruz has the chance to hit for a lot of power once he finally stops growing and starts filling out his long and lean frame. There's plenty of room to add strength and he has as much raw power as anyone in the system. He's started to show the ability to get to that power with an improved approach at the plate, though there's bound to be swing and miss in his game long-term.
His hand strength and long levers give him massive raw power that some scouts grade an 80, though with his long limbs come natural holes in his swing that lead to strikeouts. His approach is inconsistent, as well. (Spring, 2020)
Oneil showed major improvements in 2018. He slashed his strikeout rate to 22.6 percent while getting to his power more regularly, largely because he showed a much better concept of what pitch he was looking for and cut down on chases out of the zone.
Oneil's height and long levers mean he has a big strike zone, but Cruz has near top-of-the-scale raw power to go with excellent athleticism. He hits the ball harder than most power hitters.
Oneil hits tape-measure home runs to his pull side. But he also strikes out a lot.
"The difference between this year and last year is now he actually has an approach,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said in June, 2018. ”Last year, it was really just grip it and rip it.
“Now he’s going up there with a much better plan. He knows what he’s looking for in certain counts and he’s developed a two-strike approach. He’s really shown a lot more maturity as a hitter. He’s chasing a lot less—and it hasn’t cost him anything in terms of power.”
During the 2018 season, Cruz added direction to his prodigious power and speed. He chased less and honed in more. "I think you just continue to see better pitch recognition and control of the zone,” Broadway said. “Previously, he wouldn’t have any approach. It was just, ‘I go up there and I’m swinging.’
“It’s been fun to watch him grow into being a good hitter. And you look at his exit velocities. They’re up towards the top in all of baseball.”
The 19-year-old Cruz even shifted to shortstop, where he showcased his athleticism and plus arm strength. He initially struggled with body coordination on routine plays, but he improved over the course of the first half. (Dustin Dopirak - Baseball America - 8/24/2018)
2018 Season: In a second season in low Class A, Cruz finished fifth in the SAL with a .291 average and posted double-digit home runs (14) and steals (11).Scouts are more confident in his power potential than his ability to hit for average, because he’s an aggressive hitter with long levers, which leads to an unavoidably longer swing path. But when he connects, he has all-fields power. Scouts see plus-plus raw power in Cruz and at least 25-home run potential.
2020 Winter Season: Oneil Cruz, SS (Pirates No. 3/MLB No. 59)
Cruz’s home run in Game 3 was his first of the season and came in his lone playoff start for Cibao. The effortless, opposite-field power that Cruz showed in the process is exactly what makes the 6-foot-7 shortstop such a tantalizing, high-ceiling prospect. Overall, the 22-year-old produced a .245/.260/.347 batting line in the D.R. during the regular season, tallying a pair of triples in 14 games.
Oct 2, 2021: The first time Ke’Bryan Hayes saw Oneil Cruz hit baseballs in person, Cruz was a 19-year-old prospect at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Over and over, the tall, lanky shortstop would send balls to dead center off the curveball machine.
“He’s gonna be a really fun one to watch,” Hayes said.
Cruz, now 22, made his Major League debut in an 8-6 win over the Reds at PNC Park, and he gave Pirates fans a reason to be thrilled about his future with a record-setting debut. The first MLB hit for the 6-foot-7 shortstop kickstarted a six-run rally in the fifth inning, as he chopped a ball for a single to right field to score Ben Gamel.
On Wilmer Difo’s triple in the ensuing at-bat, Cruz was gauged at a 30.4 ft./sec. sprint speed running from first base to home plate—a touch above the elite 30 ft./sec. threshold. And he nearly caught Jacob “The Cheetah” Stallings, a nickname earned for his slow running.
“In fact, I told first-base coach Tarrik Brock every time he was at first and Stallings was at second, Stallings should keep his head up so Cruz doesn’t run Stallings off,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I know he’s The Cheetah, but I don’t know what we’re going to come up with for the way Oneil went first to home.”
The first hit was exciting, but the second hit was head-turning. Cruz ripped a liner to right field in the seventh inning that Statcast clocked at 118.2 mph off the bat. That is the hardest-hit ball by a Pirate in the Statcast era—an even 2 mph greater than the previous record. Cruz became only the eighth player to hit a ball at 118 mph or more in the Majors in 2021.
Shelton knew Cruz had smoked one, but he didn’t realize how torched it was until assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero came over to tell him what the data said.
“I didn’t know it was the hardest-hit ball by a Pirate,” Shelton said, “but I know this kid is talented. He hits the ball hard. We saw him hit the ball hard in the Minor Leagues.”
“He just threw the bat at it and hit it that hard,” said Bryan Reynolds, who was a homer shy of the cycle in his four-hit night. “That’s unheard of.”
How do his teammates, both here and at Double-A and Triple-A, describe Cruz’s mix of power, speed, arm and stature? "I always make this joke when someone says, 'Oh, that's crazy how Cruz is doing this,’" said Pirates No. 18 prospect Cal Mitchell. “I say, 'Well, that's what happens when Kevin Durant was born in the Dominican and decided to be a baseball player.'"
“He’s my favorite player ever,” said No. 27 prospect Canaan Smith-Njigba. “He’s going to make a lot of money in this game.”
“He’s a unicorn,” Hayes said.
Cruz’s being has baseball written all over it. He was born to Rafael Cruz, a Minor League player who never reached his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. His father named him after Yankees great Paul O’Neill, and he hoped that one day his son would reach the Majors.
When he told his dad that he was being called up, the elder Cruz was speechless. Well, not exactly: He was screaming and celebrating the entire call. “That's why I'm really looking forward to getting back to the room tonight,” Cruz said via interpreter Mike Gonzalez, “and to finally give him a phone call so I can really hear him out and see what message he has for me, especially knowing that this was a huge dream for him as well.”
The talent is clear. The tools are plenty. But what made this callup even sweeter for Cruz was the fact that the decision wasn’t about his five homers in six games at Triple-A last week. It wasn’t about his exit velocity or his sprint speed. Cruz was called up because the Pirates saw him grow and mature during the season. They set out challenges for him to tackle, and he checked them off one by one.
Now, Cruz will head into Spring Training in 2022 with a chance to crack the Major League roster in quick order. But he’s already become a Major Leaguer, and he feels the part, too. “Everything that's been a part of this journey, I look back at it and take a look at today, and I truly believe that I belong here,” Cruz said. (J Crouse - MLB.com - Oct 3, 2021)
2022 Pirates Top International Prospect: Oneil Cruz, SS, Dominican Republic (No. 3, MLB No. 52)
Initially signed by the Dodgers in 2015, Cruz has grown to 6-foot-7 and into a legitimate big league talent since, moving from the Dodgers to the Pirates in 2017. Everyone keeps waiting for him to get moved off of shortstop because of his size, but he has a chance to stay there for now. The bat continues to come as he shook off a forearm injury and posted a .970 OPS in 68 games in the Minors in 2021 en route to his big league debut that saw him homer in his second game. (Callis, Boor, Dykstra - MLB.com - Jan 14, 2022)
- Aug. 24, 2022: Oneil Cruz just hit the hardest-hit batted ball in Statcast era history! 122.4 MPH exit velocity!
O'Neil has a plus, 60 grade arm and surprising speed. There has never been a 6-foot-7 Major League shortstop before Cruz in 2021, and he displays surprising dexterity. He gets a 55 grade for his fielding at short.
Few players are capable of hitting the ball harder than Cruz, running faster than Cruz or throwing a ball across the infield faster than Cruz.
As much raw power and speed as Cruz possesses, it’s actually his throwing arm that captures observers’ attention.
Cruz won the Best Infield Arm category in the International League this year while also placing second in the National League—despite not being called up to the Pirates until June 20, 2022.) Sept., 2022)
At 6-foot-7, he is the only player in MLB history that tall to appear in even five games at shortstop.
For some time, the Pirates were keeping Cruz at shortstop mostly to help him maintain his focus on the field. But there he was becoming the tallest starting shortstop in big league history, and there isn’t talk of him moving off the premium position now. He has plus-plus arm strength, and his athleticism still plays, giving him the chance to stay there as long as he continues to work on his mechanics. (Spring 2022)
Cruz, according to several evaluators may not be able to stick at shortstop at his height. One evaluator believed the lanky Cruz may end up as a corner outfielder, though that was not the consensus.
When O'Neil made his MLB debut late in 2021, in a brief two-game cameo, homering in his second game while also becoming the tallest starting shortstop in MLB history.
The Pirates remain steadfast that Cruz has the ingredients to stick at shortstop, citing his smooth hands and surprisingly deft infield actions. He will likely always face concerns about his range and ability to handle the demands of the position over a full season, but increased shifting could mitigate some of those worries. Some of his 16 errors came from rushing his throwing mechanics. Cruz is also a plus runner, leading to speculation about a long-term home in either center or right field, but he has yet to appear in the outfield outside of practice settings. (Carlos Colazzo - Baseball America Prospect Handbook - Spring, 2022)
For years now, especially since he’s grown to 6-foot-7, everyone has been waiting for Cruz to move off of his position at shortstop. His close to top-of-the-scale arm works just fine and despite his size has shown the ability to make plays.
One of the reasons to keep him in the infield for now is to encourage him to stay engaged in every pitch, with maturity perhaps the only thing keeping him from truly unlocking his tremendous potential. (Spring 2021)
Cruz can handle the position. He has plus speed and moves around well at short despite his height. Cruz has a plus arm and the Pirates have better infield options, so he may end up in right field in the future. (Tim Williams - Baseball America Prospect Handbook - Spring, 2021)
Cruz runs very well and his athleticism allows him continue to play shortstop longer than anyone could have anticipated. He continues to improve and has one of the strongest arms in the Minors and there are still no plans to move him from the premium position, though most feel he'd profile extremely well in right field should a move need to happen. Cruz didn't perform well in the Arizona Fall League, but the Pirates aren't overly concerned with that small sample size, knowing he'll still be just 21 years old for all of the 2020 season and has every chance to develop into an offensive superstar. (Spring 2020)
Cruz has shown improvement in his ability to chop his feet and get down to grounders. He projects as an above-average defender at third base or right field.
Cruz can play third base well, displaying good range.
O'Neil still has work to do defensively. After playing mostly third base in 2017, he played shortstop in 2018, and that was an adventure.
“He’s shown flashes of being a really good defender, and he’s shown some defensive immaturity,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said in June, 2018. “He is a long-levered guy, and it’s sometimes difficult for a guy like that to stay in control.
“He’s actually really good on range plays when he has to go far to his right or far to his left. He can go open up and make a play. It’s actually the closer plays that he has a harder time with because he has to chop his feet a little bit and get under control, and that’s actually been kind of difficult for him.”
Not many shortstops look like Cruz. Lanky and tall, he has more of a small forward’s body. Cruz also stands out for his combination of tools and potential.
Few expect he can stay at shortstop because of his size, but he has a rifle of an arm and the body control to potentially be a plus defender at third base or right field.
"If there’s ever a 6-foot-6 guy who can play shortstop, it’s this guy,” one scout said. "His hands and feet are there. He’s light on his feet and he has a strong arm and graceful movements.”
Defensively, the Pirates have been trying him at shortstop, despite him being 6-foot-6. His defensive skills have improved during the 2019 season, in large part due to the work with Diaz.
"I’ve got to give most of the credit to (Diaz),” Bradenton manager Wyatt Toregas said. "He played a long time in the infield and is just unbelievable when it comes to teaching Cruz how to do some things. On the skill side of it, it’s all Cruzy. He’s a big boy, but he’s really athletic and he can just really move.”
Cruz has been working daily with Diaz for the last two years, taking 20-25 grounders a day in extra work. The focus last year was improving routes and angles, and attacking the ball off the bat. This year’s focus has been on improving his throwing and locking in to every pitch.
"I’m a lot better this year, especially looking back to last year,” Cruz said through a translator. "I’m really focusing on my throws. Last year I was airmailing some and spiking some. This year I’m focusing more on controlling throws over to first.” (Tim Williams - Baseball America - Sept., 2019)
2021 Best Arm in Top Prospects - Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates (70)
Cruz plays shortstop much better than you'd expect someone 6-foot-7 could, but it's his arm that really stands out on defense. Some evaluators give it an 80 grade and it will play nicely in right field should his size dictate a position change. If that happens, he'll fit nicely in the Pirates' tradition of right-field arms that includes Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker.
Oneil has average 60 grade speed. But he might slow down as he gains weight and muscle.
- He takes time to get up to speed, but he’s an above-average runner. (2022)
Aug 14, 2018: Cruz was on the DL.
Apr 29-July 30, 2019: Cruz hit a ball off of his foot. The result ended up being a fractured foot. He was placed on the IL.
- July-Aug 20, 2021: Oneil missed seven weeks due to what the Pirates described as a mild right forearm strain, but he didn’t seem to miss a beat upon coming back, racking up seven multi-hit games after his return.
- Dec 21, 2022: - Oneil Cruz sustained a left ankle injury while playing with Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League. General manager Ben Cherington said he believes the injury to be minor.
“He does have some swelling. He’s not going to play right now and let that calm down,” Cherington said. “I think given the holidays, we're going to look to try to get him to the States after the holidays just to be very sure about what's going on. But all reports so far are that it’s a relatively minor thing. It should pass without being too much of an issue.”