Low Class A Notebook
Edited by J.J. Cooper
June 23, 2003
June 23, 2003
Cruz emerges from obscurity to do damage for Kane County
BY JOE BUSH
GENEVA, Ill.—For the first time in Kane County’s 13-year history, there is air conditioning in the clubhouses at Elfstrom Stadium.
If the Midwest’s notoriously frigid spring climate didn’t hinder Kane County’s Nelson Cruz, an artificial chill shouldn’t either. It remains to be seen if Cruz, in his first full season, will feel the bite of the upcoming dog days.
If the 22-year-old Dominican right fielder repeats his first-half numbers, he will win two-thirds of the Midwest League’s triple crown, just as Kane County’s Jason Stokes did in 2002.
Cruz’s 14 home runs put him four ahead of Stokes’ 27-homer pace from last season. But that’s where the similarities between the two players end. Stokes was a $2 million first-round pick; Cruz a low-priced signee out of the Dominican Republic. Stokes is considered one of the game’s top prospects; Cruz is relatively unknown. Stokes also led the league in batting (.341), while Cruz led the league in RBIs (47) but is not a threat to win a batting title, as his .266 average attests. Stokes also was a Marlins prospect, and Cruz is with the Athletics, reflecting the Cougars’ new major league affiliation.
Despite coming seemingly from nowhere, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Cruz is having a classic breakthrough season.
“I don’t know exactly how the organization looked at him before, but in my eyes, he’s definitely a prospect,” Cougars manager Webster Garrison said. “He plays the game hard, and his tools speak for themselves. He’s putting it together, that’s the main thing. He’s opened some eyes.”
Cougars hitting coach Eddie Williams is a Cruz backer as well. Midwest League pitchers have adjusted to Cruz, and so far he had kept up with the respect.
“They’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him,” Williams said. “They’re starting him off with breaking balls, they’re starting him off with fastballs up and in, they’ll go 3-2 sliders, 3-1 sliders, 3-1 changeups. He’s seeing everything, and he’s handling it pretty well.”
Cruz is manhandling the game, really, as he’s developed a power stroke that he didn’t show during his first two seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League.
Cruz signed with the Mets in February 1998 and slugged below .400 in his first two years, but he bulked up and hit .351-15-80 for the Mets’ club in the DSL in 2000. After the season, he was traded to the Athletics for shortstop Jorge Velandia. He hit .250-3-16 in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2001, then followed that up with a .276-4-25 season at short-season Vancouver last year.
This season has been a giant step forward for Cruz. Garrison remembers a younger Cruz as a smaller Cruz.
“He could run, he had a good arm, good outfielder, he could hit and make contact, but he wasn’t as strong and physical as he is now,” Garrison said. “This kid worked in the past couple offseasons, and I mean he’s a man in that batter’s box swinging the bat. When he gets a hold of them, he drives them out of the park; he doesn’t pop ’em up.”
“When I hit balls, I know when they’re going,” Cruz said.
Chicks Dig The Long Ball
Cruz loves his power, choosing easily between an outfield assist and a dinger. He lights up talking about the feeling of hitting home runs and the local fame he’s enjoying.
Neither Garrison nor Williams thinks Cruz is obsessed with the long ball, and Cruz says all the right things. He’s working on smoothing the upper cut in his swing, improving his strike zone judgment (20 walks, 68 strikeouts) and hitting the other way.
“Everything outside, outside, curveballs, nothing is straight,” he said. “I’m trying to hit to the other side, too. I’m better now. My swing’s different.”
Both Garrison and Williams say Cruz’ work ethic, combined with plain old experience, will push him closer to .300.
“He’s a man among boys,” Williams said. “It’s just a matter of him getting 500 at-bats and learning that offspeed pitch. He can hit the fastball, he can hit the offspeed pitch, but every once in awhile he’ll get unselective and he’ll swing at some balls in the dirt, which is common for a 22-year-old kid.”
Garrison said Cruz hasn’t been spending all of his time in the gym.
“He’s been lifting a lot of weights and finding his swing, more than anything,” Garrison said. “You can lift all the weights you want, but if you don’t have the correct swing, it doesn’t matter. He’s more going through the ball now, instead of just trying to lift it out of the ballpark. I don’t know if he’s going to hit for a big average, like .340, but I see him getting better, hanging around .280-.300, along with some power, doing some damage.
“That’s what he is, he’s going to be a damage guy.”