When the Pittsburgh Pirates summoned top prospect Oneil Cruz this week, those trying to explain the tension around him had to reach out to other realms to compare. Baseballens Giannis Antetokounmpo. Aaron Judges height with Tyreek Hills speed.
Anyone who was actually convinced to turn on the Pirates game did not need additional analogies. The excitement of Cruz’s potential was there, pure visual stimulus.
You see, Cruz is 6-foot-7 and he plays shortstop. And he is not a news actor or a winger with a cool quirk. Until Tuesday, when Pittsburgh finally ended its particularly disgusting campaign of manipulation of service time, he was one of the most exciting players left in the minor leagues. When he entered the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him as number 12 in the sport.
In his first match in 2022 (he made an MLB debut in one match at the end of 2021), Cruz threw the ball harder than any MLB infielder so far this season, ran faster than any pirate this season and hit the ball harder than any Pirate has this season.
Just by starting a game, Cruz became the highest shortstop in MLB history. And he needed those mold-like, comparative-trying abilities that so seldom blend into one body to turn the prevailing question from “Why?” To “Why not?”
But where it was once a hot choice to think that Cruz would hold on to shortstops long enough to sniff for the big ones, he could quickly evolve from an anomaly to a trendsetter. If he retains traction in one of baseball’s most demanding and senior positions, his arrival could end up as a milestone for unicorns conquering the position straps and preconceived notions of yet another sport.
Oneil Cruz is MLB’s highest short stop … by a mile
Being 6-foot-7 and playing shortstop is completely unheard of.
Only six players who are 6-foot-5 or higher, including Cruz, have ever appeared in an MLB game at shortstop for any length of time. Only two have ever played as many as 10 games in a season there – Archi Cianfrocco, who mostly played first base for the San Diego Padres in the 1990s, and Mike Morse, who came up as a shortstop but quickly moved to the outfield .
The tallest players who have played an actual career on six holes have been in the 6-foot-4 row. That race of shortstop with quarterback bodies began with Cal Ripken Jr. and has spread a bit in recent years with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Cruz, who is listed at 220 pounds, has a slim, ruffled body type closer to Fernando Tatis Jr., who is 6-foot-3.
When Cruz was even younger and even more gangli, Baseball Prospectus prospect writer Jarrett Seidler was among the herd of scouts trying to predict his future. It was understandably hard to understand what it would look like in the big ones.
“It’s worth noting that Cruz will not only be the biggest regular shortstop in MLB history, he will be the biggest by a wide margin,” Seidler said this week. “There’s never been a regular shortstop built over 6-foot-4. Cruz is each one bit at 6-foot-7, which is the same height as Aaron Judge, and three inches taller than Seager, Tatis and Correa. So it is just completely unknown waters. “
Back in 2018, Seidler was optimistic about Cruz’s chances of navigating the path to a shortstop job in the majors, in part because he showed such a reliable glove and dynamic arm.
“The industry’s expectations when he was in A-ball were that Cruz would lose significant range as he continued to grow, and in fact he is listed 45 pounds heavier than when he signed,” Seidler said. “But he filled in without losing any noticeable reach or agility.”
Moving him from shortstop means finding a new position. It is, as Seidler points out, not a walk in the park.
Being so tall and playing * any * position other than pitcher, first base or designated hitter would count as historic, but what is particularly striking is the lack of tall players who have made careers in the crucial positions in middle of the diamond: catcher, second base, shortstop and midfield. Only 18 players who are 6-foot-5 or taller have managed even 100 career fights at these positions since 1920.
It is noteworthy that of these 18, five are active and two more have played in the last two seasons.
Even Judge has increased his time on the more difficult midfield position and has played 31 matches there in his career already this season, while embarking on the AL MVP race.
Part of the calculation there, as Seidler points out, stems from advances in defensive positioning that help teams cover more of the field with fewer great defenders. It allows them to maintain roster flexibility and improve their lineups offensively.
The teams have all the incentives to play a potentially excellent striker like Cruz in the most challenging defensive position he can handle. Especially right now – after minor-league experiments in the field went badly – it’s shortstop for Cruz.
“If he’s an average or fringe average shortstop, but worse in third place or away,” Seidler said, “it might make sense to leave him on shortstop, even if it’s not in a vacuum ideal to sacrifice shortstop defense.”
Why Oneil Cruz might not be an outlier for long
Perhaps no sport has delivered rigid positional labels more thoroughly than basketball. Although Giannis is more than deserving of his “Greek Freak” nickname, he’s not the NBA’s only skyscraper star who can handle the ball and roam around the perimeter with all the agility we used to call a point guard.
Positionless basketball does not fit perfectly into the world of baseball. Positions do not dictate matchups or cause direct physical benefits in baseball, but the demands of some places have limited talent pools for generations.
Just as basketball has predominated over most positional stereotypes, and football has slowly embraced some less conventional-sized quarterbacks, baseball is heading into a moment where the final barriers – around premium positions – may dissolve.
This is already a sport where Judge and Jose Altuve can compete for an MVP award. It may soon become a sport where they can compete for the prize and play the same position.
Many current star card stops have overcome questions about their ability to hold on. But Cruz is a different kind of proposition, precisely because he cuts such a striking figure. Minor league ball tracking numbers, pr. Seidler, shows that he is capable of hitting the ball harder than any current major leagues apart from Giancarlo Stanton. He has not done enough yet to reach all that power consistently, but the potential is there.
Another player with comparable goals is rising through the Cincinnati Reds organization right now – Elly De La Cruz. An agile 6-foot-5 only 20 years old, From the cross you have a lot minor-league highlights similar to Oneil Cruz.
Seidler calls De La Cruz one of his favorite options and says he is faster in the field but less confident than his taller forerunner. The Reds have tried him on third base and second base so far, but he still plays most of his games on shortstop.
If you’re looking for more Giannis-like dynamic diversity across the field, then mess even harder for Cruz to stick. It is, after all, the first real case study for future freaks and for De La Cruz.
“It certainly won’t hurt his chances,” Seidler said, “if Cruz can succeed.”