ST. LOUIS — If Oneil Cruz doesn’t make his much-anticipated 2022 Pirates debut by the end of this homestead — a smile plastered across his face, limbs flying everywhere and hopefully a

baseball or two deposited in the

Allegheny River — it’s time to start

asking some questions.

It’s time.

It’s actually been time.

After the Pirates have slow-played like this Bryson DeChambeau (ask your golf friends), how can they possibly justify keeping Cruz in the minors for much longer? Their offense lacks power. Cruz does not. PNC Park, playing to about a third of capacity (12,426) this season, lacks customers. The freakishly talented and fun-loving Cruz could fix that.

Director of coaching and player development John Baker talked last week in Atlanta and gave the organization’s reasoning behind why the Pirates have resisted the urge to promote Cruz. Some of it made sense, too.

Cruz’s development really matters, and it’s a situation the Pirates can’t afford to bungle, Baker argued.

Understood. It also doesn’t have to be a long-term thing. If he comes up and stinks, so what? Wouldn’t be the first for the Pirates this season, won’t be the last.

Baker also talked about the Pirates challenging Cruz to work on things and wanting him to respond in the proper way — again, fair. When Cruz struggled early on, it was tough to argue with their inaction. As much power as Cruz possesses, he was hitting .159 on May 4 while striking out 30.9 percent of the time.

“We want to provide him the

opportunity to be a great major league player,” Baker said. “That requires patience.”

Easy to say from Baker’s seat. He hasn’t been sold a collection of five-year plans. He didn’t get emotionally

invested in three consecutive playoff teams ... then watch his favorite team make lousy trades, fail to develop

players and for payroll to slowly vanish.

Baker also isn’t forced to pay full price to watch what the Pirates have been running out to shortstop on a nightly basis. Between Diego Castillo, Rodolfo Castro and a little bit of Kevin Newman, who surprisingly committed four errors in 14 games, nobody has played worse defense at that position.

Pirates shortstops had made an MLB-high 16 errors entering Wednesday’s series finale in St. Louis. Their fielding percentage (.929) was last by a long shot, with the 29th-place Astros at .956. Only three teams have fared worse in FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved, where the Pirates have been at minus-6.

From a Pirates perspective, the most common rebuttal to the potential

promotion of Cruz has included

inconsistent or insufficient defense, with Cruz committing 14 errors in 40 games. It’s not ideal, but let’s also take a look around. Not like he’ll be ruining the Tom Emanski video.

“Oneil got challenged by the major league staff with being locked in and focused and hustling all the time, and he’s met that challenge,” Baker said. “I think we still see some times where the ball’s on the ground or he throws a ball away every once in a while. Those are things that he’s always going to work on.

“We’ve never seen a 6-foot-7 shortstop play Major League Baseball, so there’s no playbook or blueprint on developing somebody like that.”

No, there’s not. Which is why it seems strange that the Pirates are adhering to a playbook or blueprint on developing somebody like that.

They’re seemingly waiting for Cruz’s defense to reach never-before-seen

levels while simultaneously

acknowledging the improvement he’s made and ignoring how much he could potentially help them at the plate.

After a rough opening stretch, Cruz has produced like someone who merits a promotion over the past 21 games. He has also been worlds better than the players the Pirates are continuing to allocate playing time to at the position.

  • Over his past 21 games (since May 15) entering Wednesday, Cruz was
  • hitting .309 with a 1.017 OPS. He had two doubles, a triple, seven home runs, 18 RBIs and 22 runs scored. More than that, he was walking 11.6 percent of the time (95 plate appearances) and striking out at a 18.9 percent clip.
  • Meanwhile, Pirates shortstops since that date have been worth minus-6 Wins Above Replacement, per
  • FanGraphs, worst in MLB.
  • They also have the highest strikeout rate (26.2 percent), the lowest batting average (.160) and an embarrassingly low wRC+ (45). For context: wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus, a formula that seeks to quantify run production where the league average is 100. Yes, Pirates shortstops are less than half the league average.

The amazing part is that we’ve gone this long, despite Cruz producing at a level far beyond what has gotten other prospects promoted and one that

flat-out dusts the players he could potentially replace in Pittsburgh.

One conceivable factor worth

mentioning is service time and at least a cursory understanding of Super-2 status. Quickly, Super 2 means the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time. Those players go through arbitration four times instead of three.

Every year around this time is a

magical date — nobody knows when it is until after the season — after which prospects can come up without the threat of earning the full year of service necessary to stay on track for Super 2.

For context, the last Super 2 cutoff was June 6 (in 2019, for the most recent arbitration crowd), so the Pirates should be well past that date.

So, with the business side clear, the current batch of shortstops doing

nothing and Cruz taking care of his part, plus a weekend series against the Giants and the major league team clearly in need of a spark, the Pirates shouldn’t wait another minute to make a move they should have made long ago.

Copyright 2022 Tribune Content Agency.