The Pirates optioned Oneil Cruz, their power hitting 23-year-old shortstop, to Triple-A Indianapolis on Tuesday, a move that sparked disappointed reactions from some fans.
Cruz played two games on the big league roster in October 2021, getting three hits—including a home run—as he gave Pirates fans a tantalizing glimpse of the future. He’s hit .333 with two home runs and a 1.067 OPS in five spring training games this year, continuing his hot streak.
While some fans reacted with skepticism to the Pirates decision to start one of their most promising young players in the minors this season, Ben Cherington and company made the right decision with Cruz.
The Pirates are still at least one year—probably two—from making a playoff push. A player must spend 172 days of the 187 day season on the Major League roster to accrue a year of service time. Players need six years of service time to hit free agency.
Starting Cruz in Triple-A Indianapolis will give the Pirates another year of team control. No matter how talented he turns out to be, Cruz won’t make Pittsburgh a contender in 2022, so there’s no reason for them to burn a year of his service time yet. They’d rather have him under contract for a full season in 2028, when they hope to be playoff contenders, instead of one month of a rebuild now.
In addition, Cruz has played just eight regular season games above the Double-A level: he played six with Indianapolis in 2021.
He’s been phenomenal in a small sample size, but he could still use some development, especially as the Pirates try to see if he’s best suited at shortstop or a different position.
Without question, the Pirates have handled Oneil Cruz the same way that every other big league team treats their young players.
As the service time system currently exists, they made the right decision, although it still has drawbacks: if Cruz finishes first or second in National League Rookie of the Year voting, he’ll accrue a year of service time regardless of how many games he played on the big league roster.
Whether MLB teams should be able to manipulate player service time in order to keep them from reaching free agency is another question: if Pirates fans are looking for someone to blame in this case, it’s the system, not Cherington.