Trei Cruz has been swinging a baseball bat for longer than he can remember.
The third-generation pro has photos of himself swinging the stick from the early age of 2 years old. His father, former Tigers hitting coach and currently the head coach for Rice, José Cruz Jr., was in the middle of an 11-year run in the majors and playing for the Toronto Blue Jays. His grandfather, José Cruz, was in Philadelphia coaching the Phillies after wrapping up a fine 18-year career.
As Cruz told Bless You Boys, while there certainly was some pressure to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Cruz never really looked at his bloodline as anything other than an advantage over other players.
“It’s a blessing for me to be able to have those two people be resources for me, be teachers for me and to help me just grow, both as a person and as a baseball player,” Cruz said. “They can relate to baseball as well as anybody. It’s amazing and I’m very blessed to have them.”
Now 24 years old (soon to be 25), Trei is still getting his picture taken while swinging a bat, but he’s doing it as a member of the Detroit Tigers Double-A affiliate Erie SeaWolves. A .300 hitter in college, Cruz struggled to adjust at the plate early in his pro career after being selected out of Rice in the third round of the 2020 amateur draft, but things have improved as he’s made his way up the organization leading to a nice breakout so far in 2023.
Although the senior members of the Cruz family are known for good contact, Trei is finding that he likes to swing for power in his third full season in the Tigers’ system. He’s currently at nine home runs through 50 games in Erie and has an ISO (isolated power) of .199, which is one-thousandth of a point off of FanGraphs’ “great” threshold. He’d only hit 10 home runs combined over his first two seasons.
“There is a big adjustment part, both physically and mentally,” he said. “I went from being arguably one of the most talented to around guys that are all extremely talented, especially at the Double-A level. I’m playing with plenty of guys that are big-league talents.”
Cruz reiterated that the mental aspect of the game can be what separates a Double-A player from a major-league talent. From his experience in the minors, it’s the smarter players that typically move up the chain faster.
Working through better stuff from pitchers and deeper pitch mixes was only half the battle. Cruz said that staying confident in himself and trusting that his work with the coaching staff would pay off required a bit of perseverance, but now the fruits of his labor are beginning to show.
“Shout out to winter ball in Puerto Rico,” he said. “That helped me a lot, going down and working with those guys. I think the biggest thing for me is making more of a conscious effort to catch the ball out front. I’ve had power, but I haven’t always known how to hit for power, per se.
“Before this year, I didn’t have a right-handed homer in pro ball, and now I think I’m around five... I think I got caught up in trying to be a contact hitter, but at the end of the day, organizations pay for power. They want power, which I understand, so I just had to figure out how to do that.”
Trei Cruz hits a home run to left field to make it 7-4 Bowie in the 8th. It’s his 5th homer of the year. pic.twitter.com/NZJZU9qEGO— Tigers ML Report (@tigersMLreport) May 7, 2023
Cruz is also focusing on getting the most out of his lower body while swinging and barreling balls to center field, as opposed to left and right as a switch hitter. He says he’s seen a big change on the player development side of things over the past year or two, especially since Scott Harris took over the organization.
“I’ve definitely seen a huge difference in the development and the way things are run in the Tigers org,” he said. “I think it’s helping everybody. Our organization as a whole, we’ve got a lot of guys who can hit, a lot of guys who can pitch. There’s a lot of talent here and it’s super competitive...
“The biggest thing he (Harris) preaches is dominating the strike zone. That’s one thing I did well last year — not chasing much, swinging at strikes and taking the balls... How can I keep doing that but still be aggressive early in the counts to hit for power?”
Cruz got with the coordinators and worked out a plan — swing free early in the count and trust his instincts late. The power numbers have obviously improved, and his walk rate is still well above average at 14.3% (down from 16.5% across all of 2022 in High-A and Double-A). Perhaps most encouragingly, Cruz’s strikeout rate has hardly budged since he started swinging more aggressively.
With a wRC+ (runs per plate appearance scaled where 100 is average) of 115, Cruz is beginning to look like a viable major league player for Detroit. His developing positional versatility could see him get a shot sooner rather than later, too.
Another change in the organization that came with Harris was players trying out different defensive spots to add more value. Cruz, an infielder since he was a high schooler in Miami and Houston, has started testing out the waters in center field this year. Cruz’s father and grandfather both played outfield in the pros, so the position has come a bit naturally to him.
“We have a saying that you can’t be a Cruz and not know how to play outfield,” he said. “Because everyone in my family has only played outfield. My uncle was the only one who played any type of infield.”
Cruz moved from the outfield to the infield around eighth or ninth grade after a push from his coaches and dad.
“You can always go to the outfield, but if you can play infield, you want to play it as long as possible,” they said to him.
After getting a glimpse of Cruz “power shagging” in center last season, some of the coaches approached him about turning into a “super-utility” piece up the middle. There’s only one player on the field that has priority over the shortstop, and that’s the center fielder. It was a no-brainer for Cruz to accept the challenge and the success he’s seen has added more value to his player profile, just as intended.
Cruz has made 22 starts in center, 13 at shortstop, eight at second base, six at third and one as a designated hitter in 2023. He hasn’t committed an error through 200 innings out there in center field, so that position could end up sticking for a while.
“Going from infield to outfield for me was simple,” he said. “You just go after the ball, hit your cut-offs and it really just comes down to that. I’ve loved it out there. I like having priority over everyone, selfishly, on every fly ball, so that’s kind of fun. I’ve enjoyed it.”
With his father present today in Erie, Trei Cruz makes an outstanding catch in left center. pic.twitter.com/yflwKuc5LA— Tigers ML Report (@tigersMLreport) June 10, 2023
But with Riley Greene set as Detroit’s center fielder for the foreseeable future, being able to play the infield should still come in handy. A utility role is a fine way to break into The Show. The rest will come with performance. With that in mind, the question becomes when for Cruz.
He’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in April, which means the Tigers need to add him to the 40-man roster and protect him by spring training. Could Tigers fans see Trei Cruz with an Olde English D on his chest by 2024? It’s not out of the question.
If Cruz can creep his average up to the .270 mark or better, there would be very little reason for the Tigers not to give him a shot if he can continue to show average or better power marks. He’s currently slashing .240/.351/.439 on the year. There are still weaknesses to be addressed for him to drive the ball effectively without making so many routine outs in the air. His good strikeout and walk numbers say it’s well worth giving him time to figure it out. Cruz knows there’s work to do, and he isn’t satisfied despite taking a major step forward.
“I’ve had a goal and a vision for a long time when it comes to what I want to accomplish in baseball,” Cruz said. “I’m not a big leaguer. I’m not a 10-year vet. I’ve got people in my family that are 10-year vets — two of them. So, that’s what I’m chasing.
“That’s what keeps me up every single day. That’s what wakes me up every morning. That’s what keeps me coming back, whether I go 0-for or 4-for-4. I haven’t reached what I want to accomplish yet, and I have a lot of work to do even with the success I’ve had this season.”