Enduring another offseason in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ long slog back to respectability, fans were able to take heart this winter that oddsmakers had deemed towering young shortstop Oneil Cruz the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year honors.
That’s no longer the case, as the Pirates drove another stake into those fans’ hearts Tuesday by sending Cruz to AAA camp. This made it clear that he won’t start the season with the big club, and Pennsylvania’s online sportsbooks responded.
In the course of 24 hours or less, FanDuel, BetMGM, and FOX Bet all moved Cruz from ROY front-runner to second behind Chicago Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who is moving over from Japanese ball rather than up from the minors. DraftKings and Betway listed the two youngsters even with one another Wednesday morning, after Cruz had been the favorite Tuesday, while a few sites like PointsBet PA and those using Kambi odds (BetRivers, Unibet, TwinSpires, etc.) had not acted on the news about Cruz.
A lot can happen in the course of a 162-game season, and there are many examples of ROY winners who weren’t part of spring training predictions for the award. Exhibit A is the 2021 winner, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Jonathan India, as odds on him were slim to none at this time a year ago. (Another Pirate, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, was the preseason favorite last year before his season was quickly derailed by injury.)
Much involved in this particular award gets dictated by simply the opportunity to play or lack thereof, with injuries factoring in not just for the player himself but for whomever might be entrenched ahead at his position, such as Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman in Cruz’s case.
It can make for an interesting and unpredictable race, with betting odds fluctuating throughout the year. This year’s early contestants also happen to include two young Phillies, Bryson Stott and Matt Vierling, with the latter already helped by a boost in playing time due to an oblique injury to his expected platoon partner, Odubel Herrera.
Cruz’s impact coming, but timing uncertain
Cruz had been an interesting preseason favorite in that he played all of two games at the major league level last year after just six games at AAA. It just so happened, however, that the 6-foot-7 shortstop did even better against superior pitching than his already impressive showing at AA Altoona.
In his two October games as a Pirate, he had three hits, a home run, three RBIs, and the hardest-hit ball by any Pirate in Statcast-recorded history at 118.2 mph. In the delayed spring training, Cruz picked up where he left off, with two homers and a 1.066 OPS in five games.
Manager Derek Shelton said of the Dominican phenom last week, “Oneil is going to have an impact on our club this year at some point. When that is, I don’t think any of us know.”
It certainly now won’t be on April 7 with the rest of the club for the season opener in St. Louis. The decision to start him in Indianapolis could be based on a sense that he needs more overall development due to only one year above A ball, or more work on his defense after 13 errors in 54 games at short in Altoona, or some experience playing outfield positions to increase opportunities for his use in Pittsburgh once he’s promoted, or that old dreaded case of a star prospect’s service time being held back for the team budget’s future benefit.
Using one of Oneil Cruz’s seasons of team control to put the No. 30 payroll around him would have been moronic.
If you want to rip the #Pirates for tanking, fine, but this makes a lot more sense than most of their moves.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) March 29, 2022
Whatever the case, the best payoff as of Tuesday for Cruz’s ROY odds had been +375 at BetRivers and other Kambi sites, with most pegging him at +350. Wednesday morning, he could be bet as high as +450 at FOX Bet, with FanDuel at +420 and BetMGM at +400.
Suzuki has open path, if he can hit MLB pitching
Suzuki, the 27-year-old who starred both offensively and defensively over the past five years for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Nippon Professional League, is now equal to Cruz at +380 with DraftKings and Betway and ahead of him on most sites.
The one clear thing Suzuki has that Cruz doesn’t is playing time from Opening Day forward, as a result of a five-year $85 million contract that has the Cubs bumping veteran Jason Heyward out of right field to make room for him. Suzuki excelled in Japan as an excellent contact hitter with solid punch, while winning his league’s Gold Glove equivalent multiple times.
The question about him, however, is the ability to transition to higher-velocity MLB pitching. No hitter previously moving from Japanese professional baseball to the U.S. has ever been National League Rookie of the Year, though Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani (while also pitching) have done it in the AL.
Generally behind Seiya Suzuki and Cruz in current ROY odds are Cincinnati Reds hurler Hunter Greene (+700 at FanDuel to +1000 at DraftKings) and San Francisco Giants catcher Joey Bart (+700 at BetRivers to +1400 at FanDuel). An interesting side note is that a few sites have odds even better than those posted still for Washington Nationals catcher Keibert Ruiz, though it has become clear this week that his prior playing time makes him ineligible for the ROY award.
Two young Phils could impact race
It has been nearly as long since the last Phillie won Rookie of the Year (Ryan Howard in 2005) as the last Pirate (Jason Bay in 2004), but this year the Phils have two candidates.
Shortstop Bryson Stott is anywhere from +850 at Betfred to +1100 at PointsBet to claim the award. The 24-year-old slashed .299/.390/.486 with 16 home runs and 10 steals across three minor league levels last year and also impressed afterward in the Arizona Fall League.
Playing time is his question, as veteran Didi Gregorius is in place on an expensive contract at short. But Gregorius was disappointing in his first year as a Phil in 2021, which was also true of young third baseman Alec Bohm in his second year. So now Stott is gaining some experience at third base in spring training, with the thinking being that he can be used at either position if the Phils opt not to send him to AAA.
Vierling, meanwhile, was penciled in for at least the short side of a center field platoon before Herrera suffered his injury. Vierling hit an impressive .324/.364/.479 in 77 plate appearances with Philadelphia last year, which registered as surprisingly better than anything he’d flashed in the minors.
Certainly, if he can sustain such numbers over a full season, Vierling could provide a handsome payoff for anyone willing to invest now in his +3500 odds on FanDuel. Most sites have him with considerably shorter odds, ranging from +1500 at PointsBet to +2000 at BetMGM.
Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY