Cruz In The Mix At Shortstop

Many observers assumed that Brian Bixler would be the natural successor to Jack Wilson at shortstop for the Pirates when Wilson is at some point traded and the rumor mill indicates he will be on the block.

Bixler, a second-round selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, has been groomed for that role for years.But there are many in the Pirates organization who believe Bixler is not ready to play shortstop at the Major League level. Another candidate emerged late in the season and that is Luis Cruz.

Of the 10 players who joined the Pirates as part of the September roster expansion, Luis Alfonso Cruz Jr. was the most unexpected.

Cruz was signed by the Pirates to a minor-league contract in December after playing 114 games last season in the San Diego Padres' farm system. He had spent six seasons in the Red Sox minor-league system, beginning as a 17-year-old out of Navojoa, Mexico about 300 miles west of the border.

The right-handed batting Cruz was hitting .325 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 31 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Pirates unconditionally released right-handed pitcher Ty Taubenheim.

With Jack Wilson shelved late in the season with a finger injury - Cruz received the bulk of the playing time coming down the stretch playing in 22 games and batting .224 with two RBI.

Cruz's baseeball roots run deep. He son of a Mexican League star center fielder. Cruz's father, also Luis Cruz, played in the Mexican League from 1983-2000. He hit more than 200 home runs and was nearly a career .300 hitter, but never played a game in the major leagues. Later this year, the Mexican League Hall of Fame will consider Cruz for induction.

"It was hard because I couldn't have any friends because we were always traveling, and I had to go with him," Cruz said. "When I turned 13, I just stayed home and my brother, and my mom went with my dad. I stayed home with my grandmother and go to school."

Cruz immediately made a positive impression with the Pirates during Spring Training, but he was sent to Double-A to start the season.

He spent the first four months of the season with Altoona, playing primarily at his natural shortstop position. He hit .264 with six home runs and 46 RBIs in 105 games. He struck out just 34 times.

"They talked to me in Spring Training and said, 'If we need you, we can pull you from Double-A, so just be playing hard,'" Cruz recalled. "I think I did a good job in Double-A, and then they moved me up to Triple-A and I did a great job. I think that's part of why they called me up to Pittsburgh."

Wilson's pay jumps to $7.25 million, which would be highest on the team, and the front office has started another youth movement. That makes players such as Wilson, who missed nearly half the season to injuries, and second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who will make $6.1 million, highly likely trade targets.

The compettition in the spring between Bixler and Cruz will be interesting and Cruz has opened some eyes.

"I really like him," Pirates manager John Russell said. "I really like the athleticism. He really impressed us. We had a really good feeling about him when we left spring training."

Cruz is anxious to get back to proving his case in Spring Training.

"I'm going to show what I've got and what I can do," Cruz said. "I'm ready. I came here to show what I've got and try to stay here longer."

The catch for the Pirates is that Wilson never looked more valuable than when he was gone, particularly given awful play of the replacements on defense

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