2023 MLB Fantasy: What Impact Can Pirates SS Oneil Cruz Make?

Pirates infielder Oneil Cruz exploded on to the scene last season, as he established himself as a rising start in MLB. Still, Cruz does remain a high-risk, high-reward player entering the 2023 fantasy season. How much risk, though, does Cruz possess? Let’s take a look at Cruz’s 2022 season and the factors that are set to affect his production this season.

Related: 2023 MLB Fantasy: What to Make of Royals First Baseman Vinnie Pasquantino

A Look at Cruz

Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz had been lauded as a premier talent in the Minors, thanks to his prodigious power and electric speed. The 6’7” infielder got a taste of the Majors in 2021, but saw his first significant time this past season.

Cruz smacked 17 home runs and 34 extra base hits last season for the Pirates, across 361 plate appearances and 87 games. The 24-year-old also stole 10 bases last season. It was a relatively strong showing from Cruz last season, although the .233/.294/.450 slash line from 2022 does lead to some pause.

Much of the reason why Cruz accrued such a low batting average can be attributed to astronomically high strikeout figures. Cruz struck out 126 times last season, to a tune of a 34.9% K%. For reference, the MLB average is 22.1% — a double-digit difference. Cruz’s Whiff% rate (35.8%) also ranked among the poorest in the league, despite a Swing% rate (40.5%) that was actually below-average last season.

Breaking balls proved to be a major problem for Cruz last season. How much of a problem? Well for one, 68 of the Pirates shortstop’s 126 strikeouts came via the breaking ball. In fact, Cruz was one of the game’s worst, in terms of getting beat on curveballs and sliders. The 24-year-old whiffed on 15.3% of the breaking balls that he saw out of the zone last season. And from June 20 (Cruz’s debut) to the end of the season, Cruz’s 89 swings and misses out of the zone ranked as the second-worst in all of baseball.

The young shortstop possesses incredible bat speed, but the strikeouts will be a major problem going forward for Cruz’s fantasy potential. However, Cruz’s strikeout problems didn’t prevent him from progressing at the plate last season. Despite a lofty 35.1% K% rate from August 1 onward, the shortstop did belt 11 of his 17 home runs and 22 of 34 extra base hits during that time. Not to mention, Cruz posted a more respectable .249/.325/.478 slash line in that period.

A 2023 Outlook for Cruz

It’s fair to say that Cruz made a sizable impact on baseball fans last season. The young shortstop showcased his impressive power and speed, and established himself as a potential star in the making. However, his fantasy prospects for this coming season are somewhat complex.

One can’t deny Cruz’s power; the 24-year-old routinely lit up Statcast in 2022 with incredible batted ball metrics. Both Cruz’s Hard Hit% and average exit velocity ranked among the top 10% in all of baseball. Couple those numbers with a 32 home run pace from last year, and one can find plenty of value in a shortstop that could possibly lead all shortstops in home runs.

On the other hand, strikeouts could be a major problem for Cruz this season. The amount of times Cruz can either avoid — or fall victim to — the strikeout can be the difference between a .245-.250, 30 home run hitter that has the chance to be a top-five shortstop, or a .210-.220 hitter that fails to live up to expectations.

Second, the Pirates’ lineup around Cruz also marks an issue. Pittsburgh is in a rebuild, and it could get much deeper should the Pirates opt to move Bryan Reynolds at some point. Should that happen, and it would further hurt Cruz’s RBI opportunities.

Cruz does possess top-five shortstop potential, thanks to his power and speed. It is difficult to state that he is one, just based upon the high-risk circumstances mentioned previously. We like Cruz, but there are a number of high-end, well-established shortstops — like Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa, just to name a few — that are ahead of him. Still, his potential does put him in the top 100-150 player conversation.

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