Name: Luis Cruz
DOB: February 10, 1984
Originally acquired in a trade for Cesar Crespo in the 2002 off-season, Cruz showed some pop in his system debut with Fort Wayne, notching 33 extra base hits. The following year, he had his coming out party – at 20 years old – in the California League. He hit .277 and knocked in 72 runs with 36 extra base hits.
Things took a turn for the worse the following season in Double-A. He struggled from the start and never got over the hump, hitting .159 for the Mobile BayBears in 44 games before being sent to Mexico. He was rejuvenated down south and came back to Double-A in 2006 with an eye on reclaiming his prospect status.
"Last year, Cruzer basically missed a year because he ended up going to Mexico," 2006 Mobile manager Gary Jones admitted. "He missed a developmental year as far as I am concerned. He came back this year and got off to a bit of a slow start but he finished strong. He hit .300 in the months in the middle there and he is definitely a guy that has a chance to play at the big league level."
April wasn't kind, however, and there were concerns on whether he could push past the early slump. But Cruz pushed, punched, and clawed, hitting well over .300 in May and June before tailing off in July and ending the year with a .261 average. He also contributed 50 extra base hits – solid numbers for a 22-year old in the Southern League.
"A young kid and he is still learning," said 2006 Mobile hitting coach Arnie Beyeler. "He has all kinds of ability and probably has more power than a lot of guys we had on that team. He really needs to learn, and got better with it as the season went, to use his strength of getting into counts and getting a good pitch to hit. He is a good example of a young kid who needs to work through the system and improve his at bats. And he did that this year. When he had the hot streak and the good couple of months he was doing a great job of getting good pitches to hit and using his ability of using the whole field and playing the game."
Was that enough to put him on the 40-man roster?
Not quite. Cruz will continue emerging at the plate but he is major league ready defensively today.
Armed with a level swing and good bat control, Cruz puts the ball in play on a consistent basis. He rarely wastes an at bat via walk or strikeout and has one of the better two-strike approaches in the system.
Cruz will, at times, overswing, cutting down on his line drives and resulting in grounders to the left side of the infield. When he keeps thing simple, the right-handed hitter is shooting balls to the left-centerfield gap.
Cruz went to Mexico this winter and put 53 more games on his 2006 resume, hitting .268 with 15 extra base hits and 25 RBIs. In a statistical anomaly, Cruz struggled against left-handed pitching while tagging righties at a .303 clip.
"A talented player that we look for big things out of," Padres' roving hitting instructor Rob Deer said. "He is a good kid, wants to get better and comes to the ballpark ready to play every day."
"When you play good in the Southern League that tells me a little bit more about you," Padres' field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "It is a lot tougher to play in that league. To me, if you do well at Double-A – in a lot of ways Double-A is tougher than Triple-A. There is the travel, harder throwers and more prospects."
Not blessed with great speed, Cruz makes up for it with solid instincts. He will take the occasional base and is aggressive enough to go from first to third on a single.
There are many who believe that Cruz is the best defensive player in the system at three different positions – third base, shortstop and second base. He can also play the outfield in a pinch.
The nimble infielder has soft hands, good instincts, excellent footwork and balance, and is smooth in transitioning the ball from his glove to his hands. He also has a cannon arm that is accurate. From the easy plays to the hard, Cruz cushions the ball, fielding it with confidence and seemingly little effort.
Thus, his addition to the 40-man roster was a no-brainer because he would have been scooped up quickly in the Rule V Draft.
His work at the plate isn't quite as advanced but it has shown signs of progress.
Cruz is a contact hitter that does not draw many walks and does get antsy in the box, failing to be selective. It results in him not getting into hitter's counts where he has the best shot at being successful. He is, however, a pretty good bad ball hitter – meaning he can still put the bat on the ball on a "pitcher's pitch". Working the count would do wonders for his game and increase his on base percentage – a number that hasn't been off the charts because of his lack of walks.
"As all hitters do, sometimes they get caught up in the numbers and want to be a little bit more productive and you end up chasing poor pitches and trying to be too aggressive and things like that," Beyeler explained. "You hurt yourself that way. But he had a solid season. From a developmental standpoint he did a real good job and got better. He is a strong candidate to get promoted and end up in the big leagues soon."
His quick wrists and ability to make solid contact generates enough power to project he can hit 15 homers a year. The strength in his game, however, is hitting the gaps and using the whole field – something he doesn't do often enough.
"He is a guy that can play all the positions," Jones added. "He can play second, third, short and he can even go play in the outfield. He has a live bat and can do some things with it from moving guys over to hitting the ball out of the ballpark. He has a lot of tools – he has three or four above average major league tools."
ETA: It wouldn't surprise to see Cruz make his major league debut in 2007, specifically as a defensive replacement. He turns 23 in early February and is on track to begin the year in Triple-A Portland. His versatility on defense is an attribute that will continue to get him noticed and his bat will determine whether he is a regular or bench contributor.