Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz won’t be able to return to the club this season, manager Derek Shelton said on his 93.7 The Fan radio show, as relayed by Alex Stumpf of DK Pittsburgh Sports. Cruz has been been on the injured list since April and hoped to return before season’s end, but it seems that won’t happen.
It’s hardly a shocking development, as it was reported last month that Cruz had “plateaued” in his rehab. He was still experiencing soreness in his leg at that time and had been shut down for seven to 10 days already. A few weeks have gone by since then but the end of the season is drawing nigh and the Bucs are out of contention, making it sensible to focus on next year.
Though not surprising, the news is surely still disappointing to Cruz, the club and its fans. It was hoped that 2023 would be the year Cruz answered questions about his long-term path forward. But in just his ninth game of the season, he collided with catcher Seby Zavala of the White Sox while attempting to score and suffered a left ankle fracture that required surgery. The club provided an estimated four-month timeline on his return to action but it seems things haven’t been able to follow that plan.
The Pirates will now go into 2024 with the same questions they had coming into this year, and perhaps more. Cruz has showcased elite tools in his time in the big leagues, with his exit velocity, arm strength and sprint speed all featuring at or near the top of league leaderboards. But there were also reasons for hesitation. He struck out in 34.9% of his plate appearances last year, a mark that only Joey Gallo and Chris Taylor topped, among those with at least 350 plate appearances.
There have also long been questions about whether he can actually stick at shortstop, as no one with his 6’7″ frame has ever done it before. He was given a +1 grade from Defensive Runs Saved last year but Ultimate Zone Rating had him at -7.5 and Outs Above Average at -9.
Ideally, 2023 would have been a chance for him to show progress in those areas and convince the Bucs that he is their franchise shortstop going forward. Or even in the scenario where he didn’t progress, it would at least give them the information that they needed to start getting him time at other positions and find other solutions for the position. Instead, it’s been essentially a lost season, with Cruz sitting out the vast majority of it. The club sprinkled the shortstop playing time to various other players without any of them doing anything to cement themselves at the position.
Those questions around Cruz’s long-term fit will now linger, with the added uncertainty of how his ankle will heal. Perhaps more rest over the winter and a normal Spring Training will get everything back on track for next year, but his inability to get healthy on the expected timeline this year is at least somewhat concerning.
Although the Pirates showed signs of life early in the year, they ultimately fell out of contention and are in fourth place in the National League Central. With still many question marks around the roster, perhaps the club can still give him the chance to prove himself that he didn’t get here this year. But they will have to make a pivot towards contention at some point, which will eventually force some kind of decision on Cruz.