Two Starts, Two Teams

June 21, 2022
 
There are a few first impressions that stick in memory.
 
I remember watching Jose Fernandez’s first start. Pitching in New York, Fernandez didn’t allow a run until the fifth while striking out eight hitters. The performance was excellent, but what stood out was Fernandez’s personality: he went after the hitters, daring them to hit fastballs in the zone, and then he’d crack a wry, satisfied smile. He was confident, but you had the sense, too, that he was having a blast standing on that hill, taking on the Mets.
 
Last night wasn’t the first career start for Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz, but it had all the pomp and energy of being a first start. It was the first time I’ve watched him.
 
And… pardon the pun…the 6’7 shortstop stood out.
 
After reaching first on an error, Cruz came around the score on a medium-depth fly ball to left. He is tall-guy-fast: he takes two or three strides to really get going, and then he is making serious ground. The play at the plate looked like it was going to be close, and then Cruz just seemed to be past the catcher. I joked to my partner that it looked like he needed about nine steps to go ninety feet.
 
In the third, Cruz fielded a backhand grounder in the hole at shortstop, and then fired the throw to first. I have seen a lot of throws from that position on the diamond, and they’re all impressive, but Cruz’s throw looked different. It just went, like it was sent on a wire to the first basemen. It took the announcers a few batters to confirm that Cruz’s first defensive play included the hardest baseball thrown by an infielder this year: an estimated 97.4 mph.
 
In the bottom of the third Cruz came up a second time, and this time the bases were loaded. He hit what looked like a looping single towards left-center field, except the ball hit the ground and I suddenly realized that Cruz has scalded the baseball. It rolled to the wall, and it took a perfect relay to nab him at third. The exit velocity was the highest any Pirate hitters has recorded.
 
Also, his sprint speed to first was the fastest recorded by a Pirates player this year. So you have the fastest sprint by a Pirate, the hardest hit by a Pirate, and the fastest throw by an infielder this year. Pretty good three innings.
 
Tagged out trying to get a triple, Cruz finally showed some emotion, cracking a grin as he went to the dugout. Before that, Cruz’s demeanor had been stoic, but with the Pirates up a lot, he could finally let down whatever guard he carried until that moment. He is in the majors now. He’s made it.
 
 
*            *            *
 
Another debut: Riley Greene.
 
I like Riley Greene a lot. I think Oneil Cruz is going to be the kind of player who makes our jaws drop at least once a week, but I think Riley Greene is going to be a great player. He’s played three games and drawn five walks, which is a nice ratio.
 
I watched Greene’s debut on Sunday, and the broadcasters had Al Avila on. Avila is the General Manager of the team and the Executive Vice President, which seems extraneous to me, but I’m sure those are important distinctions to make.
 
Anyway, Mr. Avila came on and spoke positively about Greene, who would have made the Tigers roster on Opening Day if he hadn’t fractured his foot in spring training. He also spoke – unprompted and with candor – about what a disappointment the Tigers seasons has been. He didn’t point fingers, he didn’t dodge the facts, and he didn’t mince words about any of it. We thought we were going to be good this year. We haven’t played to our expectations yet. The fans deserve better.
 
It was a small moment, hardly worth attention, but I read it as a distinctly positive marker for the organization. Certainly, it was a professional saying professional things to a public audience. But there was a willingness, too, to confront openly and directly the reality of the team’s current situation, without settling on cliches or making excuses. That’s a positive.
 
Add it to the pile.
 
The Tigers have two elite prospects in Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, and the team had every intention to start the season with both men in the starting lineup on Opening Day. That’s a positive, in my view. It’s not a positive because I dislike organizations managing the ‘control’ years of young stars. No, it’s a positive because it communicates a commitment to winning baseball games. If the Tigers are going to start winning games, they’re going to do it because Spencer Torkelson is anchoring the lineup, and Riley Greene is playing like Mookie Betts. Might as well get the ball rolling towards that as soon as possible.
 
The Tigers probably did manipulate service time for Greene, letting him play fifteen games in Triple-A before calling him up. That’s fine: that’s justifiable. If that delay means that the Tigers get an extra year of control on Greene, he can hardly fault the team. They were ready to make him their starting centerfielder on Opening Day; it was the injury that delayed things.
 
There are echoes to all of this. There are echoes when a GM says with clarity that the team hasn’t risen to expectations: it means that the organization isn’t going to bullshit their fans, or point fingers at players. It says, too, that there is a plan being followed, an intention to the decisions the organization makes.
 
There are echoes to a team saying: "We know where our future lies, and we’re going to trust the players who are integral to that future." There are echoes to the Tigers sticking with Torkelson, who has struggled, and there are echoes to their aim to start Greene on Opening Day. It communicates to the young players that the organization takes them seriously: you put in the work, and we’ll promote you. We’re not going to jerk you around.
 
 
*            *            *
 
All of that stands in stark contrast to the way the Pirates have handled Oneil Cruz.
 
Oneil Cruz hit 12 homer and stole 18 bases in Double-A last year. The Pirates promoted him to Triple-A and asked him to maybe cut out his strikeouts: he hit five homeruns in six games while walking in a quarter of his at-bats. That was mostly because the pitchers in Triple-A were terrified to pitch to him. He got into two games in the majors last year and managed three hits, one being a homer. In a short spring this year, Cruz hit two homers and struck out three times in fifteen at-bats.
 
The Pirates sent him down. Needed seasoning, they said.  
 
Cruz is an older player: he is twenty-three, and will turn twenty-four in October. He has been playing in the minors since he was seventeen, and going into spring training, it was obvious to anyone who pays attention to the Pirates that he was the best player at camp.
 
They sent him down. They made their excuses, canned and predictable.
 
And Cruz, fed up with being given the run-around, just quit. His numbers in Triple-A, through April, were atrocious. He was swinging at everything, not really caring if he connected or struck out. Every time he did hit one out, he’s touch his wrist coming around second, pretending there was a watch there. His message: it’s time. It’s more than time.
 
And, of course, Cruz’s quitting gave the Pirates enough cause to keep him in Triple-A, protecting another year of control. His numbers proved their point: he did strike out too much. He had intangibles to work through.
 
I am not convinced. I think there’s only so far you beg patience from a young man before they stop believing you.
 
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not making an argument about the ethics of service-time manipulation. It is absolutely within the right of an organization to promote or hold back players as much as they want. It’s all a part of the deal.
 
But a good organization knows when that manipulation is acceptable, and when you’re losing more than you gain. And a good organization doesn’t set a young player up to just give up, and then use that to justify holding him down.
 
There is significant costs to screwing around with young players too much. Watching Cruz last night, I felt convinced that he was playing not to beat the Cubs, but to beat the Front Office, to show them that they had messed up in claiming that he wasn’t ready. There was no Adley Rutschman, savor-the-moment vibe to Cruz’s game: he was playing with a chip on his shoulder the size of the U.S. Steel Tower.
 
That’s a waste. This should be a moment of excitement for a baseball team that has had scant few moments, but instead it felt sour. The announcers didn’t call attention to this, but Cruz wore cleats that had the words ‘Thank You’ written on them. It’s an open question what the tone of that message was, whether it was a sincere note of gratitude for finally making it to the majors, or a commentary on a promotion that was overdue. If I had to guess, I’d guess the latter.
 
I think the Pirates have botched it with Cruz, and I think there are echoes to their errors. Cruz is a dynamic player: it says something to the fans that the front office didn’t feel any urgency to get him onto the field. If he turns out to be a great player, the machinations that the Pirates put him through to delay his career could impact their efforts to sign future prospects.
 
This stuff matters. It’s stuff that we tend to forget about five seconds after their second game, but it reveals a great deal about where a franchise is heading.
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
  
 
 

COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brian
Agree 100 percent on Cruz. As to Greene while those 15 games were perhaps justifiable given the benefits, morale is so low among the fans that I wouldn't say they were meaningless. Even in that short time period Tigers fans were screaming for Greene to come up.

As to the larger issue, the Tigers have been almost as big a disaster as the Pirates since the passing of Mike Ilitch. The Verlander, JD Martinez and Castellanos trades were unmitigated disasters. Especially since they are all still stars today. in 2019, AFTER 2 64-win seasons, they cratered to 47 wins. To do that you have to tank, which they deny doing and would be unacceptable if they did. Or, in the alternative, your GM has to be incredibly inept. That team was probably the most unwatchable team in history. And the idea that they would have to get 50 games better with that GM running the rebuild deprived fans of any real hope. Especially since the new owner, Chris Ilitch, rewarded Avila in the middle of that season with a contract extension. I kid you not.

Avila has insisted on drafting pitchers repeatedly in the first round and have little to show for it. They did it again last year with a high school pitcher, Jackson Jobe, who was just removed from his last start after 20 pitches with his velocity down. Meanwhile, position players drafted behind him are thriving.


The big spring training trade, Paredes for Austin Meadows has not started out well from the Tigers' perspective. Same with the Baez and Rodriguez free agent signings.

One good thing is they did sign AJ Hinch in the wake of the Astros' scandal. Hinch did an outstanding job last year. They also hired Chris Fetter to be their pitching coach, and he has been fantastic. They have both been heavily involved in player development policies throughout the organization. Prior to their arrival, the player development was atrocious.

However, Hinch is rumored to have an opt out after this year. If that's true, there is a good chance they will lose him. Fetter is rumored to be looking at college coaching positions again. There is a sense that Ilitch will not spend anywhere near what his father would. Baez and Rodriguez gave some hope that might not be true, but Rodriguez was not that expensive, and Baez was the cheapest of the shortstop alternatives. To be fair, they did offer a lot to Correa but not really anywhere near what he was requesting.

9:01 AM Jun 27th
 
evanecurb
This stuff does matter.
4:11 PM Jun 22nd
 
77royals
Maybe there was his emotional make-up as well.

Instead of playing hard and proving he belonged, he quit.

And he's not looking to help the Pirates. He's looking for a paycheck.

Maybe they want a player who will help the team win, not just wait on free agency.

Sounds to me like Cruz doesn't understand the concept of team very well. The Pirates were wrong. But so was Cruz, and that needs to be said out loud as well.
4:00 AM Jun 22nd
 
bearbyz
Great point with Cruz. I wonder if any prospects were lost by the club playing games.

thank you really enjoyed reading the whole article.
8:14 PM Jun 21st
 
doncoffin
Nice piece, Dave. Particularly w/r/t the Pirates' handling of a player who seems to have the potential to be a geat one.
7:39 PM Jun 21st
 
 
©2022 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Powered by Sports Info Solutions|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy