Welcome back to our Kings of Kauffman offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. Today, we look at rookie reliever Steven Cruz.
The 2023 KC Royals deployed an absurd number of pitchers across the 106-loss season. 36 different pitchers made an appearance, the most in franchise history. All those different faces featured everyone, from veterans in their waning years to fresh rookies looking for a chance. One such rookie was a fireballer standing 6 feet 7 inches by the name of Steven Cruz.
Cruz is a recent addition to the Royals organization. He hasn't yet surpassed a calendar year since Kansas City acquired him via trade. The Royals sent away Gold Glove centerfielder Michael A. Taylor for Cruz and fellow reliever Evan Sisk, knowing full well chances were one of the two would work out.
FanGraphs ranked Cruz as the Royals' 40th-best prospect this season, thanks to a sensational fastball. There are some things baseball coaches can teach. A fastball reaching triple-digits is not one of them.
The KC Royals added another big bullpen righty this offseason in Steven Cruz.
Cruz made a very good first impression on Double-A Northwest Arkansas fans in 2023. He pitched 32 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, allowing only eight earned runs and one homer in that span. He posted a 2.20 ERA and 3.54 FIP across those 29 games, thanks to an 11.57 K/9 off the back of that fastball. The performance earned him a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Omaha, where the opposition was not as overwhelmed by Cruz's power.
Cruz's strikeout ability remained strong, but opposing batters started punishing poor pitches more. He allowed three home runs in 17 innings pitched, good for 1.59 HR/9. His gaudy 6.88 ERA did not inspire confidence, but his 5.22 FIP showed hope that Cruz just needed more time to acclimate. The Royals did not give him much of a chance, promoting him to the majors after 14 Triple-A games.
Kansas City promoted Cruz in late August, swapping him with Taylor Hearn in the bullpen. Plenty of Royals fans were not happy to see Hearn struggle in Kansas City after the team traded away Nicky Lopez for him. But Cruz's tools and potential intrigued fans.
Cruz made his MLB debut on August 29 and promptly had the worst outing of his MLB career. He pitched 2/3 of an inning, walking three Pittsburgh Pirates and allowing four earned runs. James McArthur's disastrous debut earlier in the season was the only thing that overshadowed that debut. But the only way to go was up for the 24-year-old Cruz.
Cruz made nine more appearances for the Royals, including serving as the opener in four. He pitched 12 innings of stellar ball with a 2.25 ERA and 3.17 FIP. He still walked batters at a high rate in those appearances, with 6 BB/9. But the strikeout stuff looked legit, with 10.5 K/9. It was far from perfect, but there was plenty to like about Cruz's limited debut. Here is how Cruz's MLB stats look since joining the Royals:
10 G, 4 GS, 12 2/3 IP, 4.97 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 1.737 WHIP
Advanced stats to know:
24.2 K%, 17.7 BB%, 54.3 hard-hit%, 8.6 barrel%
What season grade should Steven Cruz get?
Again, this is an incredibly small amount of MLB experience from Cruz this season. But I put more weight into his seven scoreless appearances than his terrible debut. Control remains a big concern, and Cruz's arsenal remains raw. But he held his own, for the most part, against MLB batters. He ended the season positively with.1 fWAR, which is better than many of his Kansas City peers. I am bullish on the Dominican Republic native with my B- grade.