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BYB 2021 Detroit Tigers prospects #23: Infielder Trei Cruz was trending up before baseball shut down

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The Tigers third round pick in 2020 has some tools and serious hitting genes.

Terri Nummer/Tigers Minor League Report (used with permission)

While the circumstances were unprecedented and difficult for all parties involved, in the end, the Detroit Tigers 2020 draft class was pretty well received. That’s as it should be when you’re picking first overall and have a compensation round pick in the mix as well, but while Spencer Torkelson was considered a no-brainer by many, the Tigers front office also drew some praise for the Tigers final three picks in the five round affair. Third round pick Trei Cruz is one of the reasons why.

The Tigers farm system is rightly lauded for the strength of it’s top talent, but the drop-off from blue chip prospects to lottery tickets is a little steep. For the organization to make good on their stated goals of becoming a consistent contender with good player development, they need to start making more out of the group of college hitters they take every summer. Cruz provides them with quality raw material to work with, and a lineage in the hitting arts that is difficult to ignore.

Background

Other than Kody Clemens, no one else in the Tigers organization, and few in baseball, approach the generational excellence of the Cruz family. Trei’s grandfather, Jose Cruz, Sr., hit .300 in five different seasons over a 19 year major league career in the 1970’s and 1980’s, tallied 50.8 fWAR, and posted a career wRC+ of 119, mostly for the Houston Astros who retired his number. Trei’s father, Jose Cruz Jr., did just fine for himself in his father’s shadow, launching 214 home runs in a fine 12 year career of his own. Cruz Jr. was also hired by the Tigers as Scott Coolbaugh’s assistant hitting coach this offseason.

The youngest Cruz, now 22 years old, had some draft interest as a prep player in Texas, but was resolved to attend Rice University, where he flourished as the team’s shortstop. His 2019 season in the Cape Cod League helped boost his portfolio as he handled the transition to wood bats well and then put together a nice little start to his junior season before college baseball came to a grinding halt in March.

Strengths

For an infielder with range and a solid set of skills, Cruz is a solidly built athlete at six-foot, two inches, and a listed 200 pounds. The size shows in his power potential, and as a switch-hitter that’s particularly intriguing even for a somewhat standard utility profile. Cruz has pretty good feel for contact that should come along, and balances a decent eye with an aggressive approach.

Cruz is widely regarded as being better suited for second or third base, but he has plenty of range to comfortably play either position. He possesses average speed and good instincts, though he’s not quite as polished in terms of his hands and actions as you’d like. Still, the tools to play good defense all around the infield, including potentially at shortstop, are there if he can continue to refine his game, and he could handle the corner outfield positions as well.

What particularly peaks our interest here, is the fact that Cruz came out of the gate pretty hot in his junior year. He drew more walks, and was spraying hard contact up the gaps to a greater degree than as an underclassman. Unfortunately, we’re only talking about a 16 game sample, but carried over from his strong work on the Cape, there were inklings that his offensive game was starting to level up before the pandemic intervened.

Weaknesses

With those skills, obviously it’s the bat that has the question marks. Cruz has some feel to hit, but it’s very much a gap power approach with plenty of ground balls and liners. There’s potential for more, but with below average hit and power right now, there’s a ways to go to a major league future. Probably this comes down to power, as it’s hard to see him hitting enough to stick in the majors as a utilityman without learning to leverage the ball into the seats more often in the bargain.

The fact that he’s a switch hitter gives him an edge over Andre Lipcius, but they’re similarly positioned in that each has a slender chance of making it as a major league regular, but a decent chance of eventually finding a backup role. Cruz may have more potential to impact games in the end.

Because things were trending positively when baseball shut down last March, we’re going to bet that the bat is still progressing and hope for a little more from Cruz. However, a fairly versatile utility player who can handle the bat from either side of the plate and provide a little pop would be plenty.

Projected 2021 team: Class-A Lakeland Flying Tigers

In normal times, Cruz probably would’ve started out with a brief look in Lakeland, and then spent the summer in short season A-ball. That is no longer an option, and seeing how teams handle college position players who need some tweaking before heading out to full season ball is going to be interesting under the new paradigm. However, with the the Florida State League functioning as Single-A for the Tigers, that simplifies matters a bit. Cruz can start out with the club’s player development staff in Lakeland, and if things go according to plan will get a look at West Michigan later in the summer months.