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Mudville: May 17, 2024 1:45 pm PDT

The O’Neill – Cruz Connection

Oneil Cruz was named for Paul O’Neill, who played for both the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees over the course of his 17-year career. Paul O’Neill was a five-time All Star; a five-time World Series champion (once with the Reds and four times with the Yankees); and the 1994 American League batting champion. He just had his number 21 retired by the Yankees this summer – though he had already been awarded a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.

There was only one player ever who tried to wear 21 as a Yankee since O’Neill retired in 2001 – reliever LaTroy Hawkins at the beginning of the 2008 season – and he got booed so roundly by Yankee fans for wearing 21 that within days he changed his uniform number. No player has ever tried it again.

O’Neill was a lefty batter and threw left-handed, as well. He played right field during his career, and was known to have a gun for an arm. Once, when asked how many times he thought he could accurately throw out a runner at home directly from right field (without needing a cutoff man), he said he thought he had about one of those throws in his arm per game. Maybe two or three. And that was part of his reputation as a player – “never run on O’Neill.” In today’s terms, he would be a “red light” thrower in right field; in other words, stop at third and don’t even think about scoring if he has a shot at you.

Paul O'Neill #21 of the New York Yankees catches a fly ball during an Major League Baseball game circa 1996 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. O'Neill played for the Yankees from 1993-2001. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Best known for his constant compulsion to make contact at the plate, O’Neill had his share of home runs – but he wasn’t considered a true power hitter. He was extremely hard on himself, and was often caught on camera knocking over the water cooler (among other antics) in the Yankee dugout after he made out in an at-bat.

Interestingly, O’Neill tells the story that when he first came up with the Reds, on his very first day as a major league rookie, the equipment manager misspelled the name on the back of his uniform: it read O’Neil. He was too excited to play in his very first MLB game to get the correction made before game time, however; and so he played as O’Neil that day.

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz is the son of retired Nippon (Japanese League) professional baseball player Rafael Cruz. Cruz named his son after his favorite player; and given his father’s history as a professional baseball player and the inspiration for his first name, it’s not surprising Oneil Cruz aspired to be a professional baseball player – and looks to have the goods to do it. Ironically, he bats lefty as did Paul O’Neill – although he throws righty.

Oneil Cruz #15 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on August 28, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Pirates defeated the Phillies 5-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Cruz is unusually tall for a shortstop. He’s listed at 6 foot 7 inches and 215 pounds. The only equivalently tall major league shortstop was 6-foot-7-inch Joel Guzman, who played nine innings for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007. There have been three 6-foot-5-inch major leaguers who started some games at shortstop: Archi Cianfrocco, Troy Glaus, and Michael Morse. Cal Ripken is 6 foot 4 inches; and Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Troy Tulowitzki are all 6 foot 3 inches, which is not exactly average for shortstops, either – but should provide some standard of comparison. Shortstop is not typically the tallest position on the team; and Oneil Cruz is as tall as Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge, who’s famed for towering over both the other players and the umpires on the field.

Infielder Archi Cianfrocco of the San Diego Padres throws the ball during a game against the New York Mets at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. (Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport)

Not that height matters in baseball, particularly. We’ve all seen the success over the years of shorter players like Jose Altuve (5 foot 6 inches), Yogi Berra (5 foot 7 inches), and Dustin Pedroia (5 foot 9 inches). These all are or were shorter than average infielders (though Berra was a catcher), while Cruz is taller than average infielder. So the real question is, height aside, given Cruz’s baseball tools, is he most suited to be an infielder; and more specifically, a shortstop?

To be a good shortstop requires range and agility. That’s one reason you don’t often see very tall or large shortstops; and in their day each of Ripken and Rodriguez were considered large to be playing that position. Certainly Troy Glaus would have been considered large for the position, but then again – it wasn’t his regular position.

Now here’s the real question about Oneil Cruz: does he have the range and agility it takes to play the shortstop position, long-term, at the major league level?

Oneil Cruz #15 of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes a throwing error on a ball off the bat of Kyle Farmer #17 of the Cincinnati Reds allowing a run to score in the third inning during the game at PNC Park on August 20, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

We’ve all heard the criticisms by now that Derek Jeter was limited defensively as a shortstop, although his offensive numbers alone are Hall of Fame numbers. And in truth, though Alex Rodriguez moved to third base when he was traded by the Texas Rangers to the Yankees (because shortstop was Jeter’s position), most pundits will tell you he was almost unquestionably the better shortstop of the two. Why? Because Rodriguez always had more range than Jeter. For a pretty large guy, not only did he have the right kind of agility for the position – he also had the right kind of range for the position.

But to be a really good shortstop, you also need a rather strong arm. Now here’s where the best shortstops we’ve listed so far all shined, and that includes Derek Jeter. They all had strong throwing arms. Not all equally, of course, but certainly sufficiently. There’s a reason both Ripken and Rodriguez were able to successfully move to third base – they both could throw. And throw hard. And this is also where Oneil Cruz shines. He’s got a gun for an arm, just as did Paul O’Neill. The difference is, he’s using it at shortstop. And one has to ask the question: is this where his throwing prowess is best utilized?

Cruz is fast, he’s strong, he throws hard, and he has good baseball instincts. He’s got the potential to be a lefty power hitter for years to come. He’s hit the ten hardest hit balls by a Pirate this year. But does he have the agility and range to be the best shortstop on the field? Even if we ignore the height factor, is shortstop the role where his most significant baseball tools are being used – or would they be better suited to third base – or even in the outfield?

Oneil Cruz #15 of the Pittsburgh Pirates grounds into a run-scoring force out in the third inning during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park on September 11, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Scouts have projected that long term, Cruz moves to a corner infield position. But if you add up his assets, I don’t think he’s limited to first or third base. I certainly think his strengths would be even more wasted at first base than they may be at shortstop. Long term, I can most see Cruz at third or in the outfield. Outfield positions require a different kind of speed and range and agility than does shortstop. And given Cruz’s strength and athleticism, I can ultimately see him quite literally following in Paul O’Neill’s footsteps – way out there in right field.

One day in the not too distant future, when Oneil Cruz is hitting the ball over the wall, flipping his bat, and circling the bases as he comes home, the question will be: where on the field does he go when the next inning starts? And it’s my distinct hope it’ll be where he can best show us who he really is as a player. And that may very well not be at shortstop.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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