Oneil Cruz lives up to hype in first Pirates game of the season

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It took star prospect Oneil Cruz just over 10 weeks to make his season debut with the Pirates, on Monday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. It took just over 10 batters for him to make his first play in the field. By that point, it was already clear to everyone watching that his mere presence was such spectacle in the first place.

In his 2022 big-league debut, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (15) hits a three run double against the Chicago Cubs during the third inning inning at PNC Park.

There has never been a player quite like the 6’7” Cruz, who last year became the first person that tall to start an MLB game at shortstop.

Spectacle is a fair word to describe Cruz, 23, because before you even consider his talent—we’ll get to that later—you’ll notice his size. At 6’7″, Cruz is a rarity in the big leagues. He’s one of just 31 players listed at that height ever to record an MLB plate appearance, and one of just 16 non-pitchers to do so.

What’s even more remarkable is that Cruz is a shortstop. Before him, only one player listed at 6’7” had ever played the position in the game’s recorded history: Joel Guzmán, who spent all of nine innings at shortstop across three games for Tampa Bay in 2007. Guzmán never started a game at short, though, putting Cruz in a league of his own.

Beyond his immense stature, Cruz’s arrival to The Show is worthy of all the fanfare because of that obvious talent we alluded to before. He’s been touted as one of the game’s top 100 prospects in each of the past four years by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, peaking at Nos. 14 and 26, respectively, by each publication before this season. He hit 58 home runs with 71 stolen bases and an .800 OPS across 459 games in the minor leagues, and flashed his many tools in a brief two-game call-up at the end of last season. Now, he is here to stay, and his 2022 debut screamed past the already-stratospheric hype.

In the top of the third, Cruz pulled off his first superhuman feat. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras hit a ground ball to the hole on the left side of the infield. Cruz fielded it with his backhand, gathered his feet and fired a 96.7-mph strike on target to first base to nab Contreras by half a step. It was the fastest-thrown ball by an infielder this season.

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Then, came the bottom of the third. In the previous inning, Cruz reached base on an error in his first plate appearance. This time, he needed no assistance getting on base. He rocketed a ball past the center fielder with the bases loaded to drive in three runs. The bases-clearing double registered as the hardest-hit ball by a Pirates player this season (112.9 mph), and on the play, he also recorded the team’s fastest sprint speed of the year. The physical marvel of watching someone built like an NBA power forward round the bases that quickly made it so that nobody minded at all that he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple.

I mean, seriously, look at him: Does it look like he’s enjoying himself out there?

As if he didn’t already have enough tools at his disposal, the rookie has the confidence of a 10-year veteran. Asked afterward about the prospect that he could break Statcast with his rising exit velocities, arm strength and sprint speed, Cruz adopted the Ivan Drago philosophy.

“Whatever’s going to get broken is going to get broken,” Cruz said through the Pirates’ interpreter, per MLB.com’s Justice delos Santos.

Cruz added an RBI single in the seventh for good measure, but he had already done more than enough to steal the show. The question of whether a 6’7”, 210-pound human should play shortstop will probably always follow him. Nearly every prospect evaluation of him—glowing or otherwise—mentions it, because how could they not? Most agree, though, that he’s at least passable at the position for the time being, and he played a clean game on Monday while showing that he clearly has more than enough arm to stick on the left side of the diamond.

The 2022 Pirates are unlikely to win many games this summer. They’re currently on pace for 66 and own the National League’s second-lowest run differential (minus-93). Cruz’s presence won’t be enough to meaningfully change that. But they undoubtedly have become more fun as a result of his arrival, and that’s more than could be said of the team over the past few years. Add in strong showings from other youngsters like rookies Roansy Contreras (3.06 ERA through 32 ⅓ innings) and Jack Suwinski (11 homers, including three on Father’s Day, the last of which was a walk-off blast) and 25-year-old franchise third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes—all while last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Henry Davis, is already playing in Double A—and the future for the Buccos looks brighter than it has at any point in the last seven years.

Cruz won’t always have nights like this, and there are questions about his ability to make consistent contact at the big league level. But as long as Pittsburgh is fielding a shortstop who stands eye-to-eye with Aaron Judge and runs like Tyreek Hill, consider the Pirates must-watch television the rest of the way.

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