The Pirates are going to call Oneil Cruz up to join the big league team, reports Kody Duncan of Rum Bunter. Pirates manager Derek Shelton confirmed the Cruz promotion to reporters, including Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and added that outfielder Bligh Madris will be joining the team as well. Corresponding moves are not known at this time. Cruz is on the 40-man roster but Madris is not.
As of tomorrow, June 20, MLB teams will be required to adhere to a 13-pitcher limit on their 26-man active rosters, after previously being allowed to carry 14. With many teams pushing their pitching staffs to the limit, there is likely to be a slew of forthcoming transactions where a pitcher is subtracted from the roster to make room for a position player. However, it’s possible that this will go down as the most significant of those transactions, given Cruz’s prospect status and unusual profile.
Originally signed by the Dodgers out of the Dominican Republic, he was traded to the Pirates in 2017 as part of a deadline deal that sent Tony Watson the other way. Since then, Cruz has attracted attention both for his incredible skills with the bat and because, at 6’7″, he’s unusually tall for a shortstop.
Last year, Cruz utterly dominated the minor leagues. In 68 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit 17 home runs, stole 19 bases and slashed .310/.375/.594, for a wRC+ of 158. Based on that tremendous showing, he was promoted to the big leagues in October of last year, getting a two-game cameo as the season wound down. Cruz hit his first major league home run in one of his nine plate appearances last year.
Coming into this season, many expected that Cruz would be on Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster, but they optioned him at the end of March, seemingly motivated by service time considerations. By keeping him down on the farm for a few weeks, they could prevent Cruz from reaching a full year of MLB service by the end of the 2022 season, thus delaying his free agency by a year. Cruz then was slow to get into a groove at the beginning of the season, hitting .176/.282/.284 in April. Based on that sluggish performance, Cruz stayed on the farm when Pirates placed regular shortstop Kevin Newman on the injured list at the end of April. Since that time, most of the playing time at short has gone to Diego Castillo, who is hitting .195/.238/.308 on the year. Meanwhile, Cruz’s bat was woken up from that sleepy start, as he hit .256/.368/.500 in May, followed by a .283/.364/.500 showing in June. The club has dabbled with playing Cruz in left field, giving him nine starts there this year, but he’s made 42 starts at shortstop. It seems likely that the 23-year-old will be given a chance to stay on the infield, at least while the team isn’t in a competitive window.
Of course, when the team enters a competitive window will largely come down to the exciting youngsters. The Pirates have never been a high-payroll team and will be dependant on Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Roansy Contreras and others to deliver on their potential while they are in their younger and cheaper years in order to build a competitive ballclub.
As for Madris, 26, he doesn’t come with nearly as much as hype as Cruz, but there are still reasons for Pittsburgh fans to be excited, based on his excellent performance this year. A ninth round pick in the 2017 draft, the outfielder has never appeared on one of Baseball America’s lists of top prospects in the system, though he did get an honorable mention on the FanGraphs list coming into this season. In 45 Triple-A games this year, the lefty swinger has walked in 11.3% of his trips to the plate and kept his strikeouts down to a 20.3% rate. Overall, his batting line is .308/.390/.526 for a wRC+ of 144. His .374 BABIP might be rubbing some good luck on those numbers, but it’s still an impressive showing for the corner outfielder. Madris will likely be battling Jack Suwinski and Cal Mitchell for corner outfield playing time. Suwinski may have earned himself a longer look in one corner after today’s three-homer performance, but Mitchell has hit just .205/.244/.356 in his first few weeks at the big league level.