If there is one thing we can still be sure of in the 2023 Fantasy Baseball season, despite all the changes in MLB, it’s that the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be bad. They are bad every year. The franchise has one winning season in the past seven years and has lost 100 games two years in a row. However, that does not mean they won’t be fun this season and have some enticing fantasy assets. Shortstop Oneil Cruz is at the top of that list, and if all things break his way, he could be near the top of fantasy lists next season.
Promising 2022 Season Gets Late Start
After a very brief, two-game cup of coffee in 2021, expectations were high for Oneil Cruz in 2022, one of the game’s top prospects. The Pirates did what the Pirates do, however, and manipulated his service time to the point where he did not get a call up to the majors until June 20th last season. He made an immediate impact, going 2-for-5 in his first game with a double and four RBI. And we were off to the races.
That game would start a half-season hot streak that culminated in a decent-for-a-rookie .233/.294/.450 slash line by the end of the year. But it was his contributions in other scarce stats that really got the fantasy world buzzing.
Just eight shortstops reached both 17 home runs and 10 stolen bases last season. Here are those eight shortstops along with the number of games and plate appearances from 2022.
|Bobby Witt Jr.||20||30||150||632|
In just over half a season, Cruz was putting up counting stats similar to what it took guys like Jeremy Pena and Bo Bichette all year to produce. In fact, all these other shortstops are at least 50 games and 250 plate appearances more than Cruz.
If the stats aren’t enough to convince you, the under-the-hood numbers show that Cruz has both power and speed for days. You may remember that Cruz had the fastest exit velocity of any batted ball last year at 122.4 miles per hour (and the fastest ever measured by Statcast). His average exit velocity of 91.9 mph was in the 91st percentile last season and his barrel rate was 96th, according to Baseball Savant. Add that to his sprint speed which was 98th percentile and you are looking at a complete player for fantasy purposes.
But all of that is the good news for Oneil Cruz headed into 2023. This chart above from Baseball Savant clearly shows, however, that there are some risks.
Cruz’s Strikeout Problem
For as powerful and dangerous a hitter as Cruz can be, you clearly see that he can be just as dangerous with his propensity to whiff at the plate. Among ALL players with at least 350 plate appearances last season, Cruz’s 34.9% strikeout rate was the third-worst in the majors. Only Joey Gallo and Chris Taylor were worse.
Towards the end of the season, though, there were signs of Cruz turning that trend around. Sometime around the second week of September, Cruz began to be more selective at the plate, exercise more patience, and the strikeout rate started to improve dramatically.
According to Fangraphs, most of his season was spent above the 35% line for strikeouts, but by the end of the season, his rolling average was closer to 25%. This reflects what we normally saw in the upper levels of the minor leagues where he never had a strikeout rate above 25.9% throughout his year in Double-A and Triple-A. His walk rate also improved. It was a low 4.5% in June and July but was above 9% in August thru September.
All rookie hitters – even the elite prospects – go through these adjustment periods to major league pitching. If Cruz has passed through that gauntlet already and has patched up some of the holes in his swing, we could see an even better version of him in 2023.
2023 Projections Put Cruz in Elite Company
Most projection systems for 2023 peg Cruz for about a .245/.315/.450 line in 2023 with 24 home runs and 18 stolen bases. Those estimates are on a conservative 130-game sample size in most systems, so there is certainly not a roof on those projections right now.
Even if 24 home runs and 18 stolen bases are all he gets, that means he would join a very exclusive group. Only six players in all of baseball reached at least 24 homers and 18 bags last season. You’re talking about players like Julio Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez, Kyle Tucker, and Jose Altuve. What do those players all have in common? They are all gone by around pick 20 in fantasy baseball drafts this season.
Right now in NFBC leagues, Cruz is going around pick 67 or 68 since February 1. With some sustained improvement on his strikeout rate and a full season displaying his other-worldly power/speed combo, that ADP number could easily be cut in half by the time we get to fantasy baseball drafts in 2023.