The Detroit Tigers are in the midst of a lengthy drought in the international free agent market. Since dealing away shortstop prospect Willy Adames in 2014, and third baseman Eugenio Suarez that offseason, the club has struggled to land any high end talent. Outfielder Jose de la Cruz is one of those with a chance to change the Tigers fortunes.
The pandemic year makes de la Cruz’s status a little murky at this point. We don’t know how much opportunity he had to progress over the past season, both physically and in terms of his baseball skills. So unfortunately there isn’t a ton to add right now that wasn’t already known a year ago.
De la Cruz was born in the town of Fantino, located in the central highlands of the Dominican Republic. Entering the 2018-2019 signing period, de la Cruz was ranked 15th on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 list of international free agent prospects. The Tigers inked him for a sizable $1.8 million bonus on July 2, which at the time was the biggest bonus they’d ever given to a teenage IFA prospect.
De la Cruz ultimately started rookie ball in the Dominican Summer League in 2019. He announced his presence with authority, mashing 11 home runs in just 56 games while posting a .307 batting average. At that level, it’s difficult to say much about a young player’s future hit tool. They need to see higher caliber pitching to really forecast how they might adjust as they develop. What isn’t in question is the raw power available here. De la Cruz posted superb exit velocity readings that led scouts to put a 60 raw power grade on him.
Listed at six-foot, one inch and 195 pounds, de la Cruz may have minimal physical projection left, but the raw ability to become a major league corner outfielder with power is already in place. When he was signed, de la Cruz had a grooved, batting practice style swing common to many teenage IFA’s who are trying to hit certain specific metrics to attract the attention of major league teams. However, what is clear from some of the tape measure shots he hit in 2019, is that the power is already present.
Defensively, de la Cruz has a plus arm that makes him a perfect fit in right field. Right now, he’s a little below average runner, which would be fine assuming he hits enough to hold the spot in time. The fact that he’s already basically physically mature leads some to worry that he’ll lose footspeed over time, but we’ll just have to see how his athleticism holds up over time.
The big question mark here is the hit tool. FanGraphs has a future average grade on him as a hitter, but there appears to be a lot of work required to reach that point. His contact ability was questioned from the start, and a 29 percent strikeout rate against mostly teenage pitchers puts a data point behind those concerns. By the time we see him this spring, he’ll have been mostly out of sight for two years, with plenty of time to make some mechanical adjustments and improve his approach. Hopefully we’ll see some progress on this front, but reports from instructs last fall weren’t particularly convincing.
The other issue is just physique driven. It’s pretty difficult to forecast how a developmentally mature 17 or 18-year-old will grow. Right now, de la Cruz is strong and well built, particularly for his age, but not very athletic. Will he put on more weight and lose more speed and flexibility? Will he develop into a real physical specimen with consistent pro caliber conditioning and surpass expectations? Right now the former possibility seems more likely based on reports from 2020 instructional work, but there’s little to do but see how he develops over the 2021 season.
We’re betting that there’s been some progress over the last year, and as a result we’re a good deal higher on de la Cruz than some. The potential is in place. The development curve remains a long one to fulfill that potential.
Projection 2021 team: Rookie-Gulf Coast League
If things had gone according to plan, de la Cruz would’ve come stateside for Gulf Coast League action last summer. That would’ve set him up for a full season debut in 2021. The lost time in 2020 may set him back a bit on that score. The Tigers will presumably having him working in camp this spring with an eye to starting in Gulf Coast League play in June. Should things go well, a jump to Single-A later in the summer would be warranted. However, assuming things go well this spring, challenging him early on in full season ball is also an option if the Tigers want to get him into games this spring.