When the Pittsburgh Pirates summoned top prospect Oneil Cruz this week, those attempting to explain the excitement around him had to reach into other realms for comparisons. The Giannis Antetokounmpo of baseball. Aaron Judge’s height with Tyreek Hill’s speed.
Anyone who was actually convinced to turn on the Pirates game needed no further analogies. The thrill of Cruz’s potential was all there, pure visual stimulus.
You see, Cruz is 6-foot-7, and he plays shortstop. And he’s not a novelty act or a fringe player with a cool quirk. Until Tuesday, when Pittsburgh finally ended its particularly obnoxious campaign of service time manipulation, he was one of the most exciting players left in the minor leagues. Coming into the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him the No. 12 prospect in the sport.
In his first game of 2022 (he made a one-game MLB debut at the end of 2021), Cruz threw the ball harder than any MLB infielder so far this season, ran faster than any Pirate has this season and hit the ball harder than any Pirate has this season.
3 innings into his 2022 debut, @Pirates‘ Oneil Cruz has registered:
🏴☠️The hardest throw by an infielder in @MLB this year (96.7 mph)
🏴☠️The hardest hit ball of the year by a Pirate (112.9)
🏴☠️The 3 fastest sprint speeds of the year by a Pirate (31.5, 30.7, 30.3) pic.twitter.com/nScTK5mD4A
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 21, 2022
Simply by starting a game, Cruz became the tallest shortstop in MLB history. And he needed those mold-busting, comparison-defying abilities that so rarely mingle within one body to flip the prevailing question from “Why? to “Why not?”
But where it was once a hot take to think Cruz would stick at shortstop long enough to sniff the majors, he could quickly evolve from an anomaly to a trendsetter. If he maintains traction at one of baseball’s most demanding and storied positions, his arrival could wind up as a milestone for unicorns conquering the positional tropes and preconceived notions of yet another sport.
Oneil Cruz is MLB’s tallest shortstop … by a mile
Being 6-foot-7 and playing shortstop is completely unheard of.
Only six players who stand 6-foot-5 or taller, including Cruz, have ever appeared in an MLB game at shortstop for any amount of time. Only two have ever played so much 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 to stake out actual careers in the six hole have been in the 6-foot-4 range. That breed of quarterback-bodied shortstop began with Cal Ripken Jr. and has proliferated a bit in recent years with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Cruz, who is listed at 220 pounds, has a slender, lanky body type closer to Fernando Tatis Jr., who is 6-foot-3.
When Cruz was even younger and even ganglier, Baseball Prospectus prospect writer Jarrett Seidler was in the pack of scouts trying to foresee his future. It was understandably difficult to comprehend how it would look in the majors.
“It’s worth noting that Cruz isn’t just going to be the biggest regular shortstop in MLB history, he’s going to be the biggest by a wide margin,” Seidler said this week. “There’s never been a regular shortstop listed above 6-foot-4. Cruz is every bit of 6-foot-7, which is the same height as Aaron Judge, and three inches taller than Seager, Tatis, and Correa. So that’s just completely uncharted waters.”
Back in 2018, Seidler was bullish on Cruz’s chances at navigating the path to a shortstop job in the majors, in part because he showed such a reliable glove and dynamic arm.
“The industry expectation when he was in A-ball was that Cruz was going to lose significant range as he continued to grow, and indeed he’s listed 45 pounds heavier than when he signed,” Seidler said. “But he filled out without losing any noticeable range or agility.”
Moving him off shortstop means finding a new position. That, as Seidler points out, isn’t a walk in the park.
Being this tall and playing *any* position other than pitcher, first base or designated hitter would count as historic, but what’s especially striking is the dearth of tall players who have made careers at the crucial positions in the middle of the diamond: catcher, second base, shortstop and center field. Only 18 players 6-foot-5 or taller have managed even 100 career games at those positions since 1920.
It’s notable that of those 18, five are active and two more were playing in the past two seasons.
Even Judge has increased his time at the more difficult center field position, playing a career-high 31 games there already this season as he paces the AL MVP race.
Part of the calculus there, as Seidler points out, springs from advances in defensive positioning that help teams cover more of the field with less stellar defenders. It allows them to maintain roster flexibility and improve their lineups offensively.
Teams have every incentive to play a potentially excellent hitter like Cruz at the most challenging defensive position he can handle. Especially right now — after minor-league experiments in the outfield went poorly — that is shortstop for Cruz.
“If he’s an average or fringe-average shortstop but worse at third or the outfield,” Seidler said, “it might make sense to leave him at shortstop even if it is not in a vacuum ideal to sacrifice shortstop defense.”
Why Oneil Cruz may not be an outlier for long
Perhaps no sport has shed rigid positional labels more thoroughly than basketball. While Giannis is more than deserving of his “Greek Freak” nickname, he’s not the NBA’s only skyscraping star who can handle the ball and roam the perimeter with all the fluidity of what we used to call a point guard.
Positionless basketball doesn’t map perfectly into the world of baseball. Positions don’t dictate matchups or cause direct physical advantages in baseball, but the demands of some spots have limited talent pools for generations.
Just as basketball has disposed with most positional stereotypes and football has slowly embraced some less conventionally sized quarterbacks, baseball is entering a moment where the last barriers — around premium positions — could disintegrate.
This is already a sport where Judge and Jose Altuve can compete for an MVP award. It could soon be a sport where they can compete for the award and play the same position.
A lot of current star shortstops have overcome questions about their ability to stick. But Cruz is a different sort of proposition precisely because he cuts such a striking figure. Minor-league ball tracking numbers, per Seidler, show that he is capable of hitting the ball harder than any current major leaguer other than Giancarlo Stanton. He doesn’t square it up enough just yet to reach all that power consistently, but the potential is there.
Another player with comparable measurements is rising through the Cincinnati Reds organization right now — Elly De La Cruz. A limber 6-foot-5 at just 20 years old, De La Cruz has a lot of minor-league highlights looking … like Oneil Cruz.
Seidler calls De La Cruz one of his favorite prospects, and says he’s quicker in the field, but less sure-handed than his taller forerunner. The Reds have tried him at third base and second base so far, but he’s still playing the majority of his games at shortstop.
If you’re rooting for more Giannis-like dynamic diversity across the field, root even harder for Cruz to hold his own. 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 be successful.”