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The Oneil Cruz Show Is Here

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 20: Oneil Cruz #15 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on against the Chicago Cubs during the game at PNC Park on June 20, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I shouldn’t be writing this blog today. I should have written this blog in the back half of last season, when, if they were concerned with things like “developing young players,” “being competitive,” or “rostering the best guys they have,” the Pittsburgh Pirates would have called up impeccably named, improbably tall shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz. The Pirates are not concerned with things like that. They are concerned with things like getting an extra year out of him before having to pay him real money or having to watch him go to the Mets. But the service-time clock has ticked around to call-up time. So, after a two-game cameo late last year, Cruz, all 23 years and 6-foot-7 of him, made his for-good MLB entrée on Monday. He did not disappoint. He could not have disappointed less if he had brained Bob Nutting with a foul ball.

The Pirates whomped the Cubs 12-1, with Cruz accounting for two hits and four RBI. (Outfield prospect Bligh Madris, making his MLB debut Monday, added three hits, two ribbies, and a stolen base. What a coincidence they got called up at the same time.) Here’s how Cruz racked up three of those RBI, although he got a little out over his skis going for three, in what surely must be the most exciting Pirates play since this, and the most exciting good Pirates play since I don’t know when.

Please note all those superlatives in the tweet caption. Cruz looked less like an unseasoned prospect—one whom the Pirates organization farcically insisted last week needed more experience with, uh, sitting on the bench before he was major league–ready—and more like a man among boys.

The most purely fun thing about the Oneil Cruz experience was his ability to draw your eyes to him even when he wasn’t at the plate. Any time he came near the ball, in either half of an inning, he proved worth watching. Like when he used his speed to turn a not-very-deep pop fly into a routine sac fly. Or, my personal favorite, when he turned a boring ol’ 6-3 into a highlight.

I’ve watched this two dozen times already. To stir broadcasters to admiration and a crowd to cheers just by the sheer velocity of a putout? That’s the good stuff. It was the second-fastest ball thrown by an infielder in the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015.

“He can affect the game in a lot of ways,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, hopefully deadpan.

If you want to nitpick, there’s a lack of polish: maybe his footwork on that groundout could have been a little better; maybe he should have stopped at second on his bases-clearing double. I don’t want to nitpick! I want to enjoy this athletic marvel while he’s too young and too talented to realize what he can’t do, because there might in fact be very little in that category. He’s gone, in one day, from the Pirates pretending he wasn’t good enough for the big leagues to being quite possibly the Pirates’ best player. More than that, though, he’s appointment viewing, Pirates fan or not. It’s been a while since Pittsburgh had something like him.