Oneil Cruz Has “Plateaued” In Attempt To Rejoin Pirates

Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz has been on the injured list since undergoing left ankle surgery in early April, which came with an estimated recovery time of four months. That timeline has now elapsed but it doesn’t seem like he’s close to returning, which is starting to put his season in jeopardy.

The club’s director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk provided an update today, with Justice delos Santos of and Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette relaying the details. Tomczyk said Cruz has “plateaued” and hasn’t been running for the past seven to ten days, still battling some general soreness in his leg. Regarding the infielder’s chances of returning later in the year, Tomczyk says “It’s tough to tell right now, but we are running out of days.”

Cruz, now 24, has flashed some elite tools in his time in the majors while also showcasing some concerning elements in his game. In 87 contests last year, his exit velocities, arm strength and sprint speed were all at or near the top of the charts in the league. But he also struck out in 34.9% of his plate appearances and got mixed reviews for his shortstop defense, with one Defensive Run Saved but -9 Outs Above Average and a grade of -7.5 from Ultimate Zone Rating. Given his youth and relative inexperience, the Pirates were surely hoping to give him plenty of reps in the majors in order to see how he developed, but it now appears that 2023 is going to go down as a mostly lost season.

The young shortstop played nine games to open the year but suffered a left ankle fracture when attempting to score in a game against the White Sox, colliding with catcher Seby Zavala. The news of his surgery and expected absence were a tough blow, but it has long been hoped that he could return and get some more major league action before the winter arrived.

Now it’s looking less and less likely that he will get that opportunity. Even if his leg pain suddenly evaporated in the next week or so, he would still need to ramp up and go on a rehab assignment, effective redoing Spring Training. Since that process would take a few weeks and there’s just over a month left on the schedule, it’s possible that window will close on him. That’s surely frustrating for him on a personal level but also deprives the Pirates of another chance to evaluate Cruz and his development before the offseason, a process that now seems to be getting kicked down the road to next year.

The Bucs showed some flashes of emerging from their rebuild earlier this year but faded from contention and are now 57-69. The Cruz situation will be a notable unknown going into next year, as it still hasn’t been determined whether he’s a viable big league shortstop or if he would be better served moving to another position. They have some other options on the roster but Cruz remains the one with the highest ceiling, giving his obvious athleticism.

With Cruz out, the club gave some significant shortstop time to players like Rodolfo Castro and Tucupita Marcano, but Castro has since been traded to the Phillies and Marcano is out for the year due to ACL surgery. More recently, youngsters Alika Williams and Liover Peguero have been getting some time there. Williams is hitting .230/.309/.295 in a small sample of 25 games while Peguero has hit .241/.305/.437 in 28 major league contests, including one last year.

Both Williams and Peguero will still be optionable next year, so it’s possible the Pirates could go into 2024 planning on having Cruz getting the regular reps with those two behind him on the depth chart, either in the minors or on the bench at the major league level. They could also supplement that group with an offseason trade or a signing, bringing in a veteran for some extra security. A sudden improvement in Cruz’s health in the next few weeks could change things but it seems like the Pirates will go into the winter essentially back to where they were at the start of the year, with an uncertain future outlook at the shortstop position.

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