SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Spring training doesn’t start for three more months but Oneil Cruz is already in Bradenton.
However, the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop isn’t getting an early jump on Grapefruit League play. He is continuing to rehabilitate his left ankle, which was broken on April 9 in a home plate collision with Chicago White Sox catcher Seby Zavala in a game at PNC Park.
To put into context how long ago it has been since Cruz was injured, the collision occurred on Easter. Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away.
The initial timetable was for Cruz to be ready to return to the active roster was the middle of August. Now, it’s nearly the middle of November and Cruz still isn’t ready for game action.
It might seem alarming that Cruz isn’t game-ready nearly three months after his targeted return date. However, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said Wednesday that things are looking up for Cruz, who continues to work out at Pirate City in the final stages of the instructional league program.
“He’s doing really well,” Cherington said Wednesday at the Major League Baseball General Managers Meetings. “The updates we’ve gotten over the past couple of weeks have been encouraging, positive. He’s doing all the baseball activities — defense, baserunning, hitting. He’s gotten in some basic simulated game-type situations like a structured instructional league environment, simulated-type of environment, and he’s handled it well.
“He’s feeling good physically and that’s as far as we’ve gone. We continue to take it one day at a time.”
The Pirates had hoped that Cruz could play in a few games in the Arizona Fall League. However, the AFL regular season ends Friday. Time is also running out on the instructional league.
The idea of Cruz seeing action in his native country in the Dominican Republic Winter League has been discussed, though the Pirates wouldn’t be able to control the game environment. Another possibility is Cruz playing in simulated games against minor-leaguers at the Pirates’ academy in the D.R.
“We’re still open-minded,” Cherington said. “He’s in a good spot and the last few weeks have gone well. I expect the decision will come pretty soon but we won’t make it until Oneil is sure he is ready to take that step.”
The importance of Cruz to the Pirates’ rebuilding process can’t be understated. He is the most talented player in the organization with his above-average power and speed as well as a strong arm.
If Cruz emerges as a superstar, the Pirates could become a force sooner rather than later.
The 2023 season figured to be Cruz’s first full season in the major leagues and the Pirates were hoping the 25-year-old would be able to start turning his potential into consistent production. Despite his raw ability and 19 home runs in 98 career big-league games, Cruz is still an unfinished product.
Cruz has a .237/.302/.449 slash line with 138 strikeouts in 410 plate appearances. He has also been charged with 18 errors.
Yet while 2023 has been a lost year, Cherington and the Pirates are convinced Cruz will be ready to go when the 2024 season opens.
“Based on all the information I have right now, yes,” Cherington said.
Ultimately, opening day is the most important target date for Cruz’s return. However, the slowness of his rehab does give at least some pause for concern.