Black MiLB Players #18: Oneil Cruz
Background + Path To Professional Baseball
Oneil Cruz is a 23-year-old Dominican shortstop who plays in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization from Nizao, Dominican Republic. He is the son of a former MiLB player named Rafael Cruz who spent three years in the Braves farm system before a career in Japan playing professional baseball. Rafael named his son after his favorite player, former New York Yankee Paul O’Neill. He taught his son to bat left-handed like O’Neill as well. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic during the 2015 signing period for international free agents by the Los Angeles Dodgers, agreeing to a 950,000 dollar signing bonus. Scouts liked his projectable 6'1'’ frame, athleticism, defense, and quick left-handed swing.
Cruz’s professional career started in the Dominican Summer League in 2016, where he put up a .811 OPS in 55 games with 18 doubles. When his professional career started in 2016 he had grown to 6'4'’, but during the season he still displayed the ability to play shortstop and brought an above-average arm with it. During the 2017 season, he was the centerpiece in a trade that sent a reliever from Pittsburgh to LA, with him and another prospect going to the Pirates. By the time of the trade Cruz was a 6'7'’ shortstop that looked like he belonged at the position, to the shock of many throughout the baseball world. MLB scouts compared him to NBA small forwards like Brandon Ingram from a physical standpoint rather than other MLB players.
Cruz was below average for most of the 2017 MiLB season with the full season A-ball affiliates of the Dodgers and Pirates affiliates, going .237/.297/.350 in 105 games. His potential and unique profile still enamored fans and pundits alike, as he flashed intriguing power in the batter’s box to go with solid baserunning and respectable defense. Making another run with the Pirates affiliate in the South Atlantic League during the 2018 MiLB season Cruz took a step forward offensively.
He went .286/.343/.488 while hitting 25 doubles, seven doubles, and 14 home runs in 443 PAs. He posted a 134 wRC+, ninth amongst those to post at least 400 plate appearances in any of the full seasons A-ball leagues during the 2018 MiLB season. Cruz led all qualified shortstops in all A-ball leagues in slugging percentage, OPS, & ISO, which highlights how he can leverage his physicality into power in the batter’s box. He maintained his ability to play solid defense, and still possessed the above-average athleticism that allowed him to do so.
Cruz struggled with his health during the 2019 MiLB season, only playing in 73 total games due to lower-leg discomfort and a fractured foot caused by a collision while playing shortstop. Splitting most of his time between the Pirates High-A and Double-A affiliates with 35 games at each level during his age 20 season, the 6'7'’ shortstop was impressive at both levels with his offensive performance. He went .298/.356/.476, continuing to show more than respectable contact ability to go with the raw power for someone his size, a testament to his impressive hand-eye coordination which is a part of his game. Cruz struggled during his time playing in the Arizona Fall League, but scouts were still impressed by the talent he flashed during the showcase. After the 2019 MiLB season, the Pirates put him on the 40-man roster alongside their other top infield Ke’Bryan Hayes.
With the 2020 MiLB season canceled due to the pandemic, Cruz spent his time at the Pirates alternate site, where he was also a part of the 60 man player pool as a potential backup in case of injuries or a coronavirus breakout. He was the center of controversy during an investigation of vehicular homicide after he accidentally killed three people on a motorcycle in an accident, but after it was found out that he placed the 911 call, was not under the influence of a foreign substance, and cleared of fault because the other party did not have their lights on and it was night. Cruz also had just cause for being out that night, as he was taking his child to the hospital.
Cruz played 68 games during the 2021 MiLB season, missing all of July and most of August due to injury. He played 62 games at Double-A, going .292/.346/.536 with 12 home runs and 18 stolen bases while playing average defense at shortstop with a 70–80 grade throwing arm, showing the all-around skillset he had before the pandemic. He made his MLB debut on October 2nd, 2021, two days before his 23rd birthday. He got two hits, an RBI, and struck out twice. During his second and final game the next day, he hit his first home run at the MLB level. The 6'7'’ shortstop became the tallest individual to ever play shortstop in an MLB game when he debuted and flashed all the skills that make him a top prospect and one of the most unique MiLB players of all time.
Oneil Cruz is a 6'7' shortstop that weighs 210 pounds, bats left-handed, and throws right-handed. He is built like a prototypical NBA small forward, having long arms and legs that are filled out with wiry strength which allows him to stay mobile and flexible. Cruz is a unicorn amongst unicorns from a baseball perspective, as individuals who are his size don’t remain mobile enough to play a middle infield position past high school a large majority of the time.
He stands in the batter box in a slight crouch, a lot of noise with his hands before and while moving the hands into position as he starts his swing with a very simple shin-high leg kick and rotating through with a mostly quiet lower half. He holds his hands near his collarbone before dropping them. Cruz employs his midsection and lower body leverage well for someone his height, but his hands and approach are inconsistent. Sometimes Cruz can be a little too careless with his willingness to swing the bat, which makes it that much easier for pitchers to exploit him up and in because of his long arms and long swing. He has troubling contact rates and his strikeout rates have hovered in the high 20s for most of his career. He can get pitches well below the zone and shows a knack to flatten his swing to make contact in the upper third of the zone. Despite the inherent red flags in his contact profile due to his size and approach, Cruz has a lot of heavily contrasting good habits and traits.
Cruz’s approach is oriented around hitting the ball to all fields, as he can go the opposite way and pull the ball successfully. He trended upwards with his line drive and flyball rates as he climbed the minor leagues, showing an adjustment and focus on tapping into his raw power to drive the ball. He has posted extremely high BABIPs throughout his MiLB career, which highlights the high rate of hard contact he makes.
Cruz has as much raw power as any MiLB or MLB player that is active right now. He has an average exit velocity of 91 miles per hour, a maximum exit velocity of 118 miles per hour, and an absurdly high hard-hit rate. His approach at the plate is mediocre at best, mostly posting middling walk rates between 6–9%. All in all, I’d call his hit tool average. There are way fewer athletic players of a similar size who have been successful with similar or worse contact profiles.
Cruz is an above-average baserunner, but I am not sure how successful he will be at stealing bases based on how large he is. He is a 55-grade runner in my opinion and makes sound decisions on the basepaths. He has slightly above average foot speed, but his long legs and long strides are the keys to how quickly he gets down the line.
He has an average amount of range and Pittsburgh has already used the shift to put him in the best position to make plays consistently. His arm is 70 grade at the least, and it will play at shortstop due to his flexibility which allows him to still competently make all the required plays. He has consistent actions at shortstop, can make all the requisite double play exchanges, and can turn two around the horn.
Oneil Cruz is one of the most divisive and unique prospects in Minor League Baseball. The three words “six-seven shortstop” sound out of place when I say them out loud or think them in my head, but Oneil Cruz may redefine the jumbo-sized shortstop similarly to when that archetype was made famous by Ripken Jr., Jeter, and Rodríguez. His player profile is a mixture of traits teams typically find in 5'10'’ middle infielders and the red flags expected from a free-swinging slugger in an athletic 6'7'’ frame you’d find on an NBA All-Star. Even if he does not remain on the infield, Cruz could easily play the outfield due to his 70-grade arm and aforementioned athleticism. When looking at all these things comprehensively, Oneil Cruz grades out as a one-of-one infield prospect from a physical standpoint with a volatile yet rare offensive profile that offers massive raw and in-game power to go with above-average baserunning and defense. You wouldn't find many peers with his combination of tools, skills, athleticism, and productivity at shortstop even if he never had a ridiculous growth spurt.