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Perrotto: Gifted Oneil Cruz Could be Pirates’ Best Gift

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Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Christmas is a little less than three weeks away.

It is hard to believe, though, that there will be anything under Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton’s tree on Christmas morning that will make him happier than shortstop Oneil Cruz returning to game action recently.

Cruz has been playing in instructional league games at the Pirates’ academy in the Dominican Republic. While Shelton hasn’t seen Cruz in person, he is enjoying watching videos of the 25-year-old.

“It was probably the highlight of every day that I’ve had over the last two weeks is we have video of everything he does on the field,” Shelton said at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Resort. “So, just watching him take ground balls, watching him steal a base in a game, watching him have at-bats, that made me smile.”

That comes after 2023 was a lost season for Cruz. He sustained a broken left ankle on April 9 while sliding into home plate in a game against the Chicago White Sox.

The Pirates originally thought Cruz could be ready to play by the middle of August. However, he missed the rest of the season because of setbacks in his rehab.

Adding to the angst was that Cruz was unable to take part in the Florida Instructional League in October in Bradenton as the Pirates had hoped.

However, Cruz is finally back on the field, and it seems he will have no restrictions when spring training begins in the middle of February.

Cruz wound up appearing in just nine games last season. The Pirates had high hopes after Cruz showed flashes of stardom as a rookie in 2022 when he belted 17 home runs and stole 10 bases in 87 games, though he also struck out 126 times in 361 plate appearances while posting a .233/.294/.450 slash line.

No player in the Pirates organization is more physically gifted than Cruz. He can hit for power, has a strong arm and is fast. Cruz has “broken” Statcast and would be the star of any tryout camp.

The Pirates wound up using eight different shortstops in 2023 with Tucupita Marcano making a team-high 58 appearances at the position.

There is no question the Pirates missed Cruz. However, the question is how much? Cruz doesn’t have a large enough track record in the major leagues to know exactly what he would have done.

“It’s hard to speculate,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “We knew coming into the season what would need to happen in 2023 for us to maybe exceed expectations and be a much better team than people are saying we’re going to be. One of those things on the list would’ve been Oneil kind of leveling up and having some sort of breakout.

“We just didn’t get the chance to see that happen. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future or it can’t happen in the future. Still think it can. But we didn’t get a chance to see that in 2023.”

Pirates shortstops hit a combined .224/.286/.340 last season with 11 home runs and 12 stolen bases. The second basemen weren’t much better at .226/.305/.339 and 12 homers.

“I think it had a significant impact on us,” Shelton said of Cruz’s injury. “That’s a premium position, and we’re talking about one of the better young players in the game. I think we felt really good about the strides that he had made in the offseason, the adjustments that he had made, even early on both offensively and defensively. So, it was a big part of our club. That’s why it’s so important that he comes back and he’s healthy to start the 2024 season.”

It’s No. 1 on Shelton’s wish list.

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