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Pirates All 40: Oneil Cruz Faces Even Greater Expectations

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This is the one in a series of stories looking at members of the Pittsburgh Pirates 40-man roster:

Old-school scouts love tools. New-school analysts love metrics.

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz has something for everyone to love.

The 6-foot-7 Cruz has plenty of tools with his ability to hit for power, extremely strong arm, and outstanding speed. He posts plenty of intriguing Statcast numbers, too, when it comes to measurements like exit velocity and sprint score.

After having an outstanding two-game cameo to being his major league career at the end of the 2021 season, Cruz had an up-and-down rookie year. He was reportedly upset he did not make the major league club out of spring training and got off to a slow start at Triple-A Indianapolis before being promoted on June 20.

With the Pirates, the 24-year-old left-handed hitter had a .233/.294/.450 slash line for a 107 OPS+, meaning he was 7% above league average offensively. And while he struck out 126 times in 361 plate appearances, he hit 17 home runs, drove in 54 runs, and stole 10 bases in 87 games.

From the day he was promoted to the Pirates until the end of the season, Cruz led National League rookies in home runs and RBIs. He wound up the season second among NL rookies in slugging percentage and OPS (.744) and third in homers.

Cruz became just the eighth rookie in major league history to have at least 10 homers and 10 steals in a season in which he played 90 games or less. His 16 longballs were the third-highest total ever by a Pirates shortstop in a single season.

The 122.4-mph single he hit off the Atlanta Braves’ Kyle Wright, who led the major leagues with 21 wins, on Aug. 24 at PNC Park gained Cruz the most notoriety. It is the top exit velocity of any ball hit in a major league game since the advent of Major League Baseball’s Statcast system in 2015.

Cruz’s 437-foot home run off 2021 NL Cy Young winner and Brewers ace Corbin Burnes was clocked at 118 mph on Aug. 29 at Milwaukee. That is the top exit velocity on a Pirates’ home run in the Statcast Era.

Cruz made some brilliant plays in the field but wound up being charged with 17 errors in just 79 games at shortstop. He had zero defensive runs saved, meaning he was league-average with the glove.

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Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said recently that Cruz would have to earn the starting shortstop job for 2023 during spring training. That seems like a rather farfetched idea and is likely a ploy to keep Cruz motivated.

Now, it’s a matter of Cruz putting all the physical attributes and Statcast measurements into one total package. If he does, Cruz will become the cornerstone of the Pirates’ latest rebuilding project and the face of the franchise.

In fact, it is not a stretch to think the Pirates’ chances of becoming competitive again largely rest on Cruz fulfilling the massive expectations.

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