The Pirates announced this afternoon they’ve optioned top shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz to Triple-A Indianapolis. The 23-year-old will not break camp with the big league club.
Pittsburgh selected Cruz to the MLB roster during the final weekend of last season. That came on the heels of a fantastic .292/.346/.536 line in a pitcher-friendly Double-A setting. The Bucs rewarded the big left-handed hitter with a two-game big league cameo to close out the year, during which time he picked up his first MLB home run.
Despite that brief look, it comes as little surprise the Bucs weren’t planning to carry him in the majors out of the gate this year. He only has six career games at the Triple-A level, and one could argue he’d benefit from a more extended run there before getting a look long at big league pitching. Cruz has performed very well in parts of two seasons at Double-A but has just 38 career plate appearances above that level.
Pittsburgh figures to point to that lack of Triple-A experience as their motivation behind sending Cruz back down, but it’s impossible to ignore the potential service time implications of the decision. Both FanGraphs and Baseball America slotted Cruz as the most talented prospect in the Pittsburgh farm system this winter, with each outlet placing him among the top 15 farmhands in the game. Between his massive raw power and exit velocities, athleticism, and arm strength, both publications suggested he has the potential to be a superstar.
If Cruz reaches that upside, getting a seventh year of club control would be incredibly valuable for the Pirates. Despite the aforementioned two days of MLB service he picked up at the end of last season, he would fall short of an automatic full year of service in 2022 if he stays in the minors for around two and a half weeks.
Service time manipulation was a talking point of the Players Association during the last round of collective bargaining negotiations. The new CBA didn’t overhaul the system, although it did introduce the opportunity for a handful of players to earn “bonus service” each year. The top two finishers in each league’s Rookie of the Year voting are now annually awarded a full year of service regardless of their call-up date.
Even if the Bucs keep him down past the threshold for accruing a full year of service based on the number of days Cruz spends in the majors, he could play his way into the full year by performing as one of the top rookies in the National League whenever he does get called up. Of course, one could argue that possibility incentivizes a rebuilding Pirates team to keep Cruz in the minors even longer. The fewer number of games he plays in the big leagues, the lower his chances are of earning that service year by putting up a Rookie of the Year-caliber season.
How long Cruz spends in the minors remains to be seen, but he clearly won’t get the Opening Day nod at shortstop. Kevin Newman has taken that spot in each of the past two seasons, and it seems likely he’ll get the call there for a third straight year. The 28-year-old Newman is a plus defender but one of the game’s lightest-hitting everyday players; he’s coming off a .226/.265/.309 showing in 554 plate appearances.