The Detroit Tigers’ weakness in the international market is a long standing point of irritation. Their most recent major international success story was Venezuelan third baseman Eugenio Suarez, signed all the way back in 2008. Others have managed at least a cup of coffee in the major leagues, but the lack of impact talent from such a deep player pool has been a major hole in the Tigers’ development program. Outfielder Jose de la Cruz is a key piece of what will hopefully be a wave of better international free agent talent percolating at the rookie ball levels.
The Tigers weren’t pursuing the bigger names in the international free agent market during the first half of the decade. The teams resources were fully committed in the present, trying to capture an elusive World Series title. Things changed when the Tigers began their teardown, and as a result of the 2016-2017 collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
As part of that agreement, rule changes replaced the so-called “luxury tax” on international free agents with the current bonus pool allotments based on a team’s prior season success. With the creation of the bonus pool system, the Tigers finally began matching other teams dollar for dollar for the top names in the class, and to date, de la Cruz is one of their most expensive acquisitions.
Jose de la Cruz originally hails from the Dominican Republic and checks in at a reported 6’1, 195 pounds. He bats and throws right-handed, and carries a well rounded tool kit for his age.
At the time of his signing on July 3, 2018, de la Cruz was reported to have some of the best raw power in his class; so far, that has proven to be the case. Baseball America ranked him as the 17th best prospect in his class, while MLB Pipeline had him 19th. As a result, the Tigers had to commit to a $1.8 million signing bonus, the largest bonus they had ever given an international free agent at the time.
The 17-year-old did serious damage in his work in the Dominican Summer League last year, and as he will turn 18 on January 3, you can expect to see him stateside next summer if things go as planned.
De la Cruz profiles as a future power hitting corner outfielder, but at this point is still playing some center field. He has a strong throwing arm and above-average speed, but the consensus is that he will likely move to a corner as he fills out. In the past, we have been reluctant to list international players who have yet to come stateside. The lack of eyes or even recent video on de la Cruz make it difficult to get a read on his hit tool at this point, but the power he displayed in Dominican Summer League play simply made him impossible to ignore.
In 56 games and 253 plate appearances, de la Cruz launched 11 home runs last summer. That total was good for a tie for first place in the league. His .931 OPS was tied for 11th place overall. Even among power hitting college players, the post-draft transition to using wood bats is always a cause for concern, so it’s notable that, at age 17, de la Cruz has already made that a moot point.
The real weakness here is just inexperience, as well as the extra uncertainty caused by his lack of exposure to prospect watchers everywhere. De la Cruz struck out almost 30 percent of the time last summer, so there is plenty of work to be done in terms of discipline and contact ability. Of course, the quality of pitching he is facing doesn’t really tell you too much about a player’s hit tool. We need to see how well he can carry his success in domestic leagues. It remains to be seen how much feel he will develop for the barrel and how he will respond to the introduction of a better class of breaking ball in the years to come.
The scouting video that accompanied his signing showed an athletic looking young player with obvious power in his swing. There were certainly things to clean up, but in the year since, there have not been many chances to lay eyes on him. Hopefully a tour of the Gulf Coast League in 2020 will answer some of the basic questions about the current status of his swing and hit tool.
Another question that will be answered in the coming years revolves around his future defensive home. It’s expected that de la Cruz will play center field for the time being, and his power profile would be particularly impressive should he manage to stick at the position long-term. If he moves to a corner outfield spot as projected, that obviously puts a little more pressure on his bat to provide most of his value.
Projected team: Gulf Coast League (GCL) Tigers
Typically, higher quality international free agents make their way to the United States at age 18, and de la Cruz should be no exception. A spot on one of the Tigers’ Gulf Coast League (GCL) squads this summer will provide scouts a better opportunity to get eyes on him, and see how the Tigers’ investment in the young outfielder is paying off. He is still young and very raw, but a show of power like he put on in 2019 has us very keen to see what he can do in the years ahead.