Thursday, April 19, 2012

Juan Cruz

Hey, who is that crafty righty who has just notched back-to-back saves for the Buccos? It's none other than the well traveled Juan Cruz, the latest in a line of steady veteran relievers the Pirates have brought in the past three seasons. The FO works that market about as well as any team (even if the occasional Joe Beimel slips through), and usually gets pretty good bang for its buck.

He's always shown outstanding stuff and owns a fair-sized arsenal of pitches. Cruz's heater sits at 92-93, and he has a cutter, slider and change, which is a nice toolkit for a back-end reliever. The string bean (6'2" - 165 lbs) has become primarily a fastball/cutter pitcher in the past couple of seasons, with a healthy dose of sliders.

Cruz has put together some excellent K rates (633 K's in 625-1/3 innings), but he also walks hitters by the truckload, too - 4.7/nine innings. Cruz gives up under 8 hits per game, but his walk rate has inflated his WHIP to 1.394. His splits are pretty equal at .225 RH/.251 LH. The righty is a fly ball pitcher, but his HR rate is pretty normal, with a 9.5% fly ball to homer ratio.

His major concern recently has been durability. He had a terrible 2009 and was shut down for its final two months, eventually losing 2010 to shoulder surgery. But he got into 56 games last season, so the Buc docs seemed satisfied that he's recovered.

The Bonao, Dominican republic native was first inked by the Cubs in 1997. In 2001, he debuted in the show. Back then, he was primarily a starting pitcher. Cruz yo-yo'ed back and forth between roles. He had a strong season for Atlanta out of the pen in 2004, becoming part of the Tim Hudson trade with the A's, but it wasn't until 2007 that he became a full-time reliever.

The 33-year-old Cruz has worked around the league, pitching for the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, Arizona D-Backs and the KC Royals. He went 5-0/3.88 ERA in 48-2/3 frames with Tampa Bay in 2011. In his eleven seasons in the show, he's 37-35 with a 4.13 ERA. And he was available for the cost of a minor league contract, right up the Pirates' alley.

When the Pirates signed Cruz at the end of January with an invite him to spring training, he was just one of 20 non-roster players on the way to camp. He became the only one to crack the active roster.

He was almost immediately anointed as this year's Jose Veras, 2011's workhorse reliever who was swapped out for Casey McGehee in the off-season. Veras was deemed the second coming of Octavio Dotel, who became the Pirate closer in 2010 and was turned into James McDonald and Andrew Lambo at the trade deadline. Notice a trend developing?

It's almost certain that clubs are casting eyes at Joel Hanrahan, who has emerged as a primo closer and may soon be too rich for the Bucco purse, especially as a bullpen arm, an area where they traditionally don't like to tie up big money. His tweaked hammy has given the Bucs a chance to audition a closer for life without Hanny.

They could have used Jason Grilli or Chris Resop to fill the role, and may hope that Evan Meek recovers enough arm strength down the road to compete for the spot. But the guy they choose was Cruz. In his two opportunities, he went six up, six down.

So the question is whether Cruz is seen as a longer term asset or deadline trade bait. It'll be interesting. He's affordable, earning $815,000, and still fairly young at 33. But the Bucs have guys that can make the jump to the show in Bryan Morris, Danny Moskos, Daniel McCutchen, Tim Wood and maybe Justin Wilson. They also have that history of turning over guys for prospects.

Check in July 31st.

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