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On Cruz Control

Oneil Cruz

Oneil Cruz

Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Evaluating players in a dynasty or keeper league context is complex. There is a smidge of “What have you done for me lately?” with a heaping cup of “What will you do long-term?”. With the season trying to a close, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some players that greatly changed their value, both in the short-term and long-term. Grab your pumpkin spice latte and come with me on a journey.

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pittsburgh Pirates

Oneil Cruz brings a rare combination of 80-grade power, 80-grade arm, and above-average speed. He smacked a ball over the fence with an exit velocity of 122.4 MPH and threw a 97.8 MPH seed to get a runner out at first base. Many of us thought the Pirates were going to start the season with Cruz on the roster but, the team decided to toy around with his service time and claimed they wanted Cruz to play more in the outfield. After the team thought his outfield defense was good enough (they didn’t play him regularly in the outfield, by the way) they called him up for good June 20th. Cruz struggled initially, especially with the called strike. Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic wrote an excellent article about Cruz in late August and discussed how hard it has been for the 6'7 foot of a man to get accurately called strikes, especially low in the zone.

While it might not be until the robot umps debut in the major leagues that Cruz will get properly called strikes, especially in the bottom half of the zone, the young phenom has been making progress recently.

Cruz's 15-Game Rolling Average

Cruz’s 15-Game Rolling Average

In late August, the 23-year-old was striking out close to 50 percent of the time. He has really cut down on them since and his production at the plate has turned toward the positive. He is hitting .412/.429/.853 with three homers and eight RBI. The Pirates have rewarded him as they moved him to the top of their lineup. While Cruz is most likely not available to pick up in your redraft or dynasty leagues, dynasty fantasy managers can breathe a sigh of relief as the Oneil Cruz is turning it around and look poised for a breakout season in 2023.

Anthony Santander, OF, Baltimore Orioles

While Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson have garnered most of the attention during Baltimore’s deeper-than-expected run to the playoffs, there is one player that deserves a bit more love, Anthony Santander. I had always been a fan of the 27-year-old outfielder but injury and a crowded roster situation to begin the season scared me away. Sprinkle in the fact that the left field wall was being pushed back, I was afraid Santander would not be a contributor in the power department. I could not have been more wrong. Santander is currently hitting .254/.332/.461 with 27 homers and 79 RBI, which are career-high numbers. So what gives? Santander is hitting the snot out of the ball

Santander's Rolling Hard Hit Percentage - 50 Batted Balls

Santander’s Rolling Hard Hit Percentage - 50 Batted Balls

Baseball Savant

Santander has great plate discipline too. He is striking out 18 percent of the time, walking nine percent of the time, while swinging and missing nine percent of the time while walking nearly nine percent. He also puts together the perfect combination of hard-hit pulled fly balls and liners with hard-hit opposite-field grounders. 17.6 percent of his batted balls are in one of those two categories. To put his elite ability to hit the ball in ideally, the league is hitting these types of batted balls 10 percent of the time. While Santander has fewer batted balls than Mookie Betts, he is right in line with Mookie’s 16.5 percent. With the Orioles lineup greatly improving, Santander should be able to replicate this level of production for the next couple of seasons.

Jeremy Peña, SS, Astros

While there was a bit of smoke over the winter that the Astros were thinking about re-signing their long-term shortstop, Carols Correa, it was just that, smoke as the Astros had their own internal long-term option in Jeremy Peña. Peña was drafted by the Astros in the third round of the 2018 draft out of the University of Maine. Peña, who is the son of major leaguer Geronimo Peña, played in every single game during his three years in college. Not only was he known for his durability, but he was also a defensive wizard. His ability to move both east and west and his above-average arm had him high on many teams’ draft boards. After signing, Peña quickly moved through the Astros system, and just like in college, played sick defense while playing pretty much every single game. Scouts and evaluators believed he was a major leaguer but there would be very little pop out of his bat. Things changed in 2021 while in Triple-A Sugar Land. Peña popped 10 homers in 30 games after tweaking his swing and adding about 20 pounds of muscle before a wrist injury ended his season prematurely. The beginning of the 2022 season started out great. At the end of May, the 24-year-old was hitting an outstanding .281/.329/.490 with eight homers and three stolen bases and was in the AL Rookie of the Year discussion. He then landed on the injured list twice, once for injuring his wrist again, and has not looked the same since. He is hitting .233/.262/.366 with nine homers and two stolen bases since June.

Jeremy Peña's 10-Game Rolling Average

Jeremy Peña’s 10-Game Rolling Average

As you can see from this rolling graph from FanGraphs Peña was not chasing the ball out of the zone earlier in the year but after June, you can see the young shortstop begin to chase more and more. In the minor leagues, Peña was known to be a pretty aggressive hitter so that on top of a barking wrist, surely is part of the reason for the downturn in production.

First Year Player Check-in

With trading out of the picture for many managers in keeper and dynasty leagues, some might feel the need to prepare for their upcoming first year player drafts. These drafts can vary in size. One of my 15-teamer keeper leagues only has a two-round rookie draft prior to the regular draft. Another league, all rookies and players returning to the pool are available whenever you wish to select them. This year’s draft class was chock full of talent so even if you do not have a high pick, there should be plenty of fun upside players available. The minor league season has concluded for the lower levels but both Double-A and Triple-A will continue to play for a couple more weeks. For the younger players, there season is over. Some might see a bump up to a higher level that is still playing i.e. Jackson Chourio‘s recent promotion to Double-A Biloxi or be assigned to the Arizona Fall League. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll highlight some intriguing first year player draft options to put you a step ahead of other fantasy managers.

Zach Neto, SS, Angels

High-A - .200/.355/.400 1 HR 1 SB across 31 plate appearances

Double-A - .321/.365/.509 4 HR 2 SB across 115 plate appearances

While we have seen college pitchers promoted aggressively after the draft, it has been a while since a team promoted a hitter to Double-A during the summer of his draft year. Neto was drafted 13th overall by the Angels out of Campbell University. The 21-year-old slashed .407/.514/.769 while displaying smooth as butter defense at shortstop. The Angels were quick to assign him to High-A Tri-City then and after seven games, he was promoted to Double-A Rocket City. Neto’s groundball rate has jumped up to 46 percent and is only walking 4 percent of the time with the Trash Pandas. With the Angels seeming to have this kid on the fast track to Anaheim and we could see his season extended to the Arizona Fall League. While he should be considered a league-winner, he would be a great pick for managers on the cusp of competing who also need some help up the middle.

Eric Brown, SS, Brewers

Complex - .308/.471/.538 4 SB across 17 plate appearances

Low-A - .262/.370/.440 3 HR 15 SB across 100 plate appearances

Brown is known for his all-around skill set more than just one loud, outstanding tool. The Brewers selected Brown with the 27th overall pick out of Coastal Carolina. During his junior year in college, Brown slashed .330/.460/.554 and walked more (39) than he struck out. The Brewers have used the traditional approach with Brown and he should finish his season with the Low-A Mud Hens. Maybe it is due to the larger bases in the minors or maybe the 21-year-old wants to show off for his new team but his 19 swipes are the most he has stolen in a season. While Brown does make frequent contact, so far it has been on the ground 50 percent of the time. To unlock double-digit power, the Brewers will need to tinker with his approach. Even if the Brew Crew is unable to unlock any additional over the fence power, Brown’s defense should keep him at short, with the possibility of a move to second base.