Know Your Opponent: Altoona’s Cruz Helps Make Curve An NEL Team To Watch

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Onelil_Cruz_768x515If you’re familiar with my work over the last two decades or so, you know that my coverage is never just limited to the team I’m covering.

It’s the focus, obviously, and the main one.  But I’ve always believed that educating (or trying to, at least) fans on the visiting teams and their players can make for a better and more knowledgable overall experience.

So, with that said, let’s talk about the Altoona Curve, shall we?  The Double-A Northeast League will be loaded with talent this year — Somerset’s roster is actually one of the more prospect-light ones released so far — and the squad the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate is fielding this year is certainly no exception.

The big headliner this year is shortstop Oneil Cruz, who is Pittsburgh’s No. 2 ranked prospect according to Baseball America, behind only Ke’Bryan Hayes, who likely would have graduated from prospect status right around now had he not been dealing with wrist issues early this season in the big leagues.

In an hour-long Zoom meeting — technically it was on Microsoft Teams, but you get the idea — with local, national and league media, Cruz made it clear that his mission this year is to be teammates with Hayes sooner rather than later.

“You guys know,” he said, through a translator, when asked about his goals for the season.

“Big leagues.”

If only it were that easy.  A native of the Dominican Republic — and yes, we’re not dancing around the accident he was involved in back in his homeland this off-season, but you’re free to read about that elsewhere — the 22-year-old knows it’s going to take some serious work to get there.

“I’m looking to be consistent on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively,” he said, with manager Miguel Perez serving as his interpreter.

“Offensively, that’s one of the things I’ve been focused on the most.  Defensively, I’ve gained a lot of ground.  But to get to the big leagues, I need to be consistent with my hitting.”

Plenty has been made of some potential experimenting with playing Cruz in the outfield, but he’s made it clear — Sunday’s media availability session included — that he’d prefer to remain at shortstop, as it keeps him more engaged with every pitch.  That’s where he played during his last meaningful games, which came in Altoona mostly towards the second half of the 2019 season.

Cruz hit .269 with a homer and 17 RBI during that 35-game stint, and took valuable lessons from his time on that team that he says he can carry with him to his first Double-A Opening Day on Tuesday.

“Being here, the fact that we had some big league guys here then, that was good for me to be mixed with them,” Cruz said.  “I learned a lot from them, and created a little routine.  I know now that I have to be consistent, that’s very important.  I’m looking forward to maintaining that routine I’ve been working on the past few years and be ready to go to the next level.”

If Cruz, a 6-foot-7, 210 pounder acquired via trade from the Dodgers in 2017, is still with the Curve by the time they get to Somerset — Altoona doesn’t come to town until July 20 — Perez says fans will be in for a treat for what they’ll get to see.

“He has power, he has versatility, his athleticism on the field, he’s going to be noticed for sure,” Perez said.  “He can do some special things in the field, offensively and defensively.  He’s one of those guys that you really want to come to the field and watch him play, obviously along with other guys.  But the main thing is going to be playing shortstop.  Sometimes, you’ll see him take one step to his right or his left, and he’s already there getting the ball and then, on top of that, he can really throw it.  We’re going to have fun watching him play.  He’ll stand out for sure.”

Baseball America lists Cruz as “the most athletic and dynamic prospect in the Pirates system” with plus speed, a plus arm and “elite raw power.”

Let’s hope we all get to see it for ourselves in a few months.

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