When the Dodgers signed Luis Cruz to a minor-league deal last November, it generated little reaction around here. Actually, that’s overstating it; look through the November archives, and you’ll see that he wasn’t even mentioned at all. That’s partially because teams sign dozens of guys like this to such deals each year, and partially because it wasn’t even immediately clear who he was; I vaguely recall arguing with Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports on Twitter whether the Dodgers had signed this Cruz, or the Cruz who spent 2011 in the St. Louis organization, or the one who had been in the Houston organization, or one of the two different guys named Luis De La Cruz.
And why should we have cared? Our Cruz had collected only 169 plate appearances in parts of three seasons with Pittsburgh & Milwaukee, and didn’t even play in the bigs at all in 2011. Hell, he wasn’t even in American ball all year, having spent part of the year playing in Mexico as well as with Texas’ Triple-A team. Over parts of 12 years in the minors, his career OBP was south of .300, so he offered little to dream on. He was just a guy, and that’s what the Dodgers needed; since none of the seven men who played shortstop for Albuquerque in 2011 were likely options again this year, they just needed someone who could fill in for a season and provide depth until the next guy, likely Jake Lemmerman, arrived in 2013. Including his stint in Mexico, Cruz had been with four organizations over the previous three years, and so “just a guy” described him exactly; he’d enjoy Albuquerque this year before heading off to Rochester or Tacoma or Louisville next year, which is what these guys do.
Except, a funny thing happened this year. Two things, actually. First, Cruz began to tear it up with the Isotopes, hitting .318/.348/.529 along with good defense. Second – and this is why “Mike hates Luis Cruz” has become such a running joke around here – a few of my Twitter followers have been talking him up all year, even before he came to Los Angeles, insisting he was “the best shortstop in Triple-A,” as though that was a source of pride; after all, Triple-A is usually where Quad-A types live, with the best talent in the bigs or in Double-A.
Now, it’s easy enough to explain the first part. Albuquerque can make a hitter of just about anyone, and Cruz’ splits were among the most egregious, hitting 401/.433/.694 at home and just .232/.257/.362 everywhere else. That, along with more than a decade of futility, made it easy enough to write off Cruz as being unlikely having any sort of major league future. The second part? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now; Cruz had a small-but-vocal contingent of backers, yet no one sings the praises of Trent Oeltjen or Josh Bard.
When Cruz was recalled on July 2, it was less about his performance and more because the Dodgers were so riddled by injury that they needed warm bodies, since at the time they were still refusing to disable an unavailable Andre Ethier, Juan Uribe had a sore ankle, and Matt Kemp & Mark Ellis were still out. Two days later, Dee Gordon broke his thumb on a head-first slide into third, and Cruz was suddenly the starting shortstop for the rest of the month.
Cruz played in 25 games, mostly at short, between his arrival and Hanley Ramirez sliding over to shortstop, and for a fourth-string-oh-god-everyone-is-hurt-break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy, he was more than you could have asked for. Sure, he didn’t get on base, because a .289 OBP over that stretch is nothing to be proud of, but his defense was better than Gordon’s, and he showed a surprising amount of pop, contributing nine doubles and two home runs over that time, along with a twelve-game hitting streak. As most of us might have expected, he faded as he became exposed, slumping badly in the two weeks between July 30 – August 11, reaching base only four times in 25 plate appearances. With the returns to health of Ellis & Adam Kennedy and the additions of Ramirez & Shane Victorino (pushing Jerry Hairston back to third base), it seemed that Cruz had been a nice band-aid who had seen his time pass, much like Elian Herrera.
Yet with Hairston injured again and Uribe a ghost, Cruz has been back in the lineup twice in three days, contributing six hits (two doubles) in ten plate appearances. In 33 games, he’s driven in 22 runs; by comparison, Uribe has driven in 45 over his entire 135-game Dodger career. While he still doesn’t get on base that much – .309 total – and is unlikely to change that considering his track record, it’s hard to argue that he’s not a better solution than Uribe right now on the left side of the infield. The case could be made, though I’m not quite ready to commit to it yet, that he’s more effective than Gordon when he returns, too, at least for this year.
Luis Cruz is not to be considered a long-term solution anywhere. As I said when he was tearing it up in ABQ, if he was really that good, he wouldn’t have been passing through so many organizations all the time, and anyone who looks at his Triple-A numbers this year without checking home/road splits and thinks that he’s suddenly “figured it out” is just deluding themselves; it’s possible, if not probable, that we’re seeing the peak of his entire career right now. But when the Dodgers badly needed him, he was there to step in with good defense and occasional offensive contribution, and with the left side of the infield still totally up in the air, he’s still there chipping in when he gets a chance. That’s whole lot more value than I had ever given him credit for being capable of achieving, and while still limited, it’s useful. It’s enough to get him remembered fondly, and that’s not just “better than being remembered poorly” – the alternative for guys like this is not being remembered at all.
Luis Cruz, the greatest shortstop (named Luis who had previously been a Pirate & Brewer who was born in 1984) in Dodger history.