Armando Cruz – SS
Most Washington Nationals fans have been following Armando Cruz for some time now. If for some reason you are unfamiliar with that name, Cruz is a 17 year old shortstop from the Dominican Republic who recently signed with the Nationals for $3.9MM. Cruz was not only the top player of the Nats’ 2020 international group, but both Ben Badler (Baseball America) and Jesse Sanchez (MLB.com) ranked him as a Top-5 talent overall for this year’s class. This week, ESPN named Cruz in their Top-10 prospects for the Nationals. Earlier in the month, the teenager also gave TalkNats his first interview in D.C.
It’s not uncommon for MLB organizations to be “linked” to international players many, many months before they are eligible to sign with a team. With the minimum signing age being 16, this means teams establish verbal agreements with players (and their trainers) as young as 14 years old. Ask MLB General Managers and International Scouting Directors about this process and most will tell you they hate that it’s come to this, but at the same time acknowledge the competition to sign top talent remains ferocious. Attempting to predict the physical and mental maturation process of a 14 year old is daunting enough. Factor in the overwhelming likelihood the player has grown up in a less-than-ideal socioeconomic situation and possesses limited-to-zero English language proficiency – the odds of achieving stateside success plummet.
When it does work out, though, you end up with a generational-type talent like Juan Soto who has — according to Fangraphs — already accumulated 11.0 career WAR, or $87.9M of value when translated to dollars. Soto was signed for $1.5M as an international amateur free agent in July 2015 and has earned an additional $1.2M in his 2-plus years of MLB service — an investment which has netted the Nationals roughly $85M in value (oh, and that 2019 World Series title, as well).
Cruz, who turned 17 in January, had reportedly been linked to the Nationals for nearly 18 months prior to actually signing on Jan. 15. That the Nationals were willing to commit nearly four million dollars to sign him speaks volumes – not just about Cruz’s talent, but also their trust in Vice President and Assistant GM of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia’s ability to accurately quantify it.
Cruz has already established a well-deserved reputation for his defensive prowess. In fact, he is often called “El Mago” (which is Spanish for “The Magician”) by his teammates and friends in the Dominican Republic. At 5’11/170lbs., Cruz is athletic and lean with quick-twitch actions. His hands are soft and he gets rid of the baseball utilizing a lightning-quick transfer. His arm strength projects to be above average as well. His throws from short have reportedly been timed as high as 92 MPH. That, in combination with his quick release, will allow him to successfully make plays when ranging in the hole and delivering strong throws across the infield (the most demanding “routine” play that shortstops have to make). Cruz also has the unique ability to create arm speed from a variety of slots, which often plays a significant role – for example – in successfully turning a double play or making an awkward throw on a slow roller. Physically, DiPuglia compares Cruz to a player like José Iglesias, who recently completed his ninth Major League season and was an AL All-Star in 2015 with the Detroit Tigers.
Armando Cruz’s glove 😍
The Nationals are expected to give him one of the largest signing bonuses of the 2020-21 international class next month.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) December 30, 2020
Offensively, Cruz hits from the right side of the plate. Concerns of some rival evaluators about Cruz’s future hitting potential have been well-documented. Others believe he will be fine as his body fills in and he gains strength. In scouting circles, a split camp on a hitter’s potential — especially those this young — is often par for the course. Projecting the potential to hit is by far the toughest call a scout is required to make for athletes of this age.
“I am very focused on my hitting and trying to always improve every day and adjust in the little things that I am missing to continue developing and polishing my hitting,” Cruz told TalkNats.
Siding with the “he’ll never hit” corps remains the safest play (even if subconsciously), since most professional players do ultimately end up failing to hit at the Major League level. Conversely, rare is the scout’s “he’s gonna hit a ton” level of conviction on a hitter who is 5-10 years away from the Majors.
A classic example which comes to mind is Nats shortstop Trea Turner. Scouts’ opinions on Turner’s hitting ability as an amateur were — at best — mixed and many questioned his arm strength would be enough for him to stick at shortstop. Prior to the 2014 MLB Draft, he was regarded as a plus-plus runner and potential above average range at short, but with questions relating to a long swing that would likely project as a bottom-of-the order hitter. Heading into his seventh Major League season Turner has averaged 3.3 WAR per season and put up totals of .296/.353/.480 for his career. Even the most optimistic supporters of Turner as an amateur have to be surprised by that level of power output.
Personally, I don’t see a glaring weakness holding me back from believing in Cruz’s chances to hit — especially considering the lower offensive threshold for a player with Cruz’s defensive chops. In fact, when comparing older video with some taken more recently, I’m encouraged by his offensive progress for a few reasons. First, he’s gained strength in his lower half, which has resulted in increased bat speed and allows him to drive the ball with authority to left field. Cruz also uses his hands well and has always been considered as having solid bat-to-ball skills. His natural swing path makes him more apt to spray the ball to all fields. Many young hitters will fall into the bad habit of the dead-pull approach, especially in Latin America where players are frequently asked to showcase their skills to scouts via a few rounds of batting practice. Thankfully, Cruz has not fallen victim to the grip-it-and-rip-it philosophy. He’s a 6.8-to-6.9 runner in the 60 (grading out as slightly above average) giving him the chance to incorporate speed into his overall offensive game.
I’m told the Nationals are impressed with Cruz’s makeup, intelligence and work ethic and that is a point made in the TalkNats article from earlier in the month. As the youngest in his family, making it to the Big Leagues has been his goal since the age of nine when he began honing his skills at the Javilla Baseball Academy in the D.R. under the guidance of his trainer, Jhon “John” Carmona. Cruz has also been working on his English in hopes of becoming fluent by the time he’s playing full-time in the U.S.
“As a high school student, Armando takes English classes at the same time and will soon be fluent and fully bilingual,” Carmona told TalkNats.
“Because of his intelligence, that places him in a very prominent place in what are his ambitions, … becoming a professional baseball player, reaching the Major Leagues…”
I project Cruz as a player who, admittedly, may not ascend to the other-worldly heights of Francisco Lindor or Manny Machado, but because of his advanced defensive ability and chance to ultimately stick at shortstop in the big leagues, I believe his floor is high. The Nationals’ hope that Cruz might mirror the career of one of Johnny DiPuglia’s previous shortstop signees during his time with the Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts. Cruz will be a fascinating player to follow as he begins his professional baseball journey towards D.C.
Yasel Antuna – SS
We’ve mentioned how challenging it is evaluating players after the Covid layoff, but it’s particularly acute in the case of Yasel Antuna. Since signing with the Nationals for $3.85MM as a top international free agent in 2016, Antuna has only played in 138 games due to injuries — most recently an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2018 and held him out of all but three games in 2019. While we hear chatter on how he’s played in instructional leagues and alternate sites, it’s still been a lot of time to miss for a player in important formative development seasons.
Still, Antuna’s bonus alone will buy him plenty of time to figure it out if he can remain healthy and on the field, and there’s still an awful lot to like in a player that will play all season at age 21. Antuna’s started to fill into his once gangly frame, and it reportedly led to a big uptick in his power at the alternate site. It remains to be seen if the added strength and mass will necessitate a move off of SS, though. Still, it’s encouraging that Antuna was able to use the time he was injured to develop physically.
“I see myself playing as a shortstop, but I also have the skills to perform at third base or anywhere they want to play me,” Antuna told TalkNats in November.
Antuna’s been a far stronger hitter from the left side of the plate in his career thus far as a switch-hitter, and it’s not hard to see why on video. His left-handed swing is much stronger, shorter, and he’s more engaged with his lower half, giving him more bat speed and leverage to hit the ball with authority. Though the video is a few years old now, it’s a loose, projectable swing and he keeps his barrel in the hitting zone a long time — all really positive traits, and one where it’s easy to envision an average or better pure hit tool with the same amount of power. In his game ABs, he shows a patient approach, seeing a lot of pitches and limited swings outside of the zone. Like a lot of young hitters, he’ll see his barrel dip below the high fastball some, but with added strength, it’s not something I’d deem a long-term concern.
It’s hard to be as bullish about the right-handed swing- it’s a much different hack and there’s a lot of growth needed before he’ll be ready to combat higher-level pitching. There’s not as much strength to the swing, it’s a longer bat path with the barrel dipping under the ball more, and he doesn’t get into his lower ½ very effectively like he does from the other side of the plate. Again, the video is dated, but I’d have a lot of concern about Antuna’s ability to catch up to high-octane fastballs with his current right-handed bat path. Nats fans will remember the struggles with switch-hitting shortstop Danny Espinosa from the left-side of the plate while he had a much better swing as a righty. Switch-hitting is difficult and takes time, and Antuna has time.
Antuna impresses defensively, too, with smooth actions, soft hands, and good balance/footwork for a player his age. His arm is a better-than-average tool as well. He’s a lock to stay on the dirt as a defender, and the only question will be if he’ll maintain the range to stay at SS- right now, he’s got more than enough lateral flexibility to do so, though players tend to slow as they age, and he’s not a hyper-twitchy athlete, so there’s a chance he could be pushed to 3b or 2b in time, which will put more pressure on his bat.
There’s enough to like about Antuna’s game to see the upside of a quality regular, though given his unique circumstances, I think it comes with more risk than most. It goes without saying for virtually any player, but Antuna’s 2021 performance will go a long way towards showing whether he’s an impact contributor for the Nats in the near future or if he’s still an intriguing prospect with a lot of upside but an equal number of questions.