oneilcruz.jpg
Getty Images

The Pirates on Tuesday announced that their top prospect, shortstop Oneil Cruz, has been optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the 2022 regular season. 

The decision would seem to be a curious one for multiple reasons: 

  • The Pirates badly need roster improvements right now. 
  • Cruz is 23 years of age and has spent five seasons and 405 games in the minors. 
  • Cruz is coming off a 2021 season in which he batted .310/.375/.594 with 17 home runs and 19 stolen bases in 69 games at the Double- and Triple-A levels. 
  • Cruz also cracked the big-league roster late in the 2021 regular season and made a pair of start for the Pirates. He went 3 for 9 with a home run in those two games. 
  • This spring, Cruz batted .333/.333/.733 in 15 spring at-bats, one of which resulted in this: 

Relatedly, here's what our R.J. Anderson recently wrote about Cruz in ranking him the No. 22 prospect in all of baseball

Cruz's availability at this point last year was up in the air after he was involved in a car accident that killed three people. (Cruz's lawyer and the Pirates pushed back against reports suggesting alcohol was involved.) He ended up playing in 68 minor-league games and then, surprisingly, two big-league contests to end the season despite limited Triple-A exposure. Cruz has one of the oddest profiles in the game stemming from the fact that he's a 6-foot-7 shortstop. The Pirates haven't hedged their bets against him sticking there by so much as cross-training him at other positions. They're all-in, in other words. Cruz has big-time power and he's a fast runner (at least for the time being), making him a potentially dynamic offensive talent. He also cut into his strikeout rate this season, too, which bodes well for him given his hit tool has been scrutinized in the past. Cruz should get a longer look in the majors this year.

Despite Cruz's apparent readiness, the Pirates earlier in spring signaled that he likely wasn't ticketed for Pittsburgh to start the season. "I think there's still development to be had there," manager Derek Shelton told Rob Biertempfl of The Athletic. "Oneil is gonna have an impact on our club this year at some point. When that is, I don't think any of us know. But the fact that he's gonna play multiple positions, he's continuing to learn to swing the bat, and there is development there."

The imprecise need for a prospect to work on his defense is often tidy rationale to justify service time manipulation, which is the practice of keeping a clearly ready prospect in the minors for a limited amount of time solely to delay his arbitration eligibility and eventual free agency for a full year. Given owner Bob Nutting's manifest lack of interest in fielding a competitive team -- and manifest lack of interest in doing anything other than collecting revenue-sharing dollars -- the working assumption is that this decision was made in the service of, yes, manipulating Cruz's service time. 

As such, don't be surprised if Cruz's defensive needs are magically resolved not long after he's no longer able to log a full year of major-league service time in 2022.