Time Warp: In defense of trading Oneil Cruz for Tony Watson in 2017
time warp - /ˈtīm ˌwôrp/
noun (especially in science fiction) an imaginary distortion of space in relation to time whereby people or objects of one period can be moved to another.
Baseball is hard. Running a team is even harder. If running a team were easy, then even the Reds, Pirates, Rangers, Orioles, or Mariners would have blundered into a title in recent years. Heck, the Rangers made back-to-back Series appearances where they got smothered by the 2010 Giants, and in 2011, they were one literal strike away from a title (twice) before David Freese happened (twice). Relevance has not happened since but I suppose that they gave Corey Seager a lot of money though, which is something.
Anyway, this essay is not about the Rangers but if you want a detour into their history of baseball misery, by all means, enjoy.
No, this essay is about a trade that most of you have likely forgotten about. Sometimes trades happen and at the moment of the trade, you can just tell it was a terrible idea. Maybe it was zugzwang, a term we shall cover in-depth at a later date. Rather than go with the obvious example in Dodgers’ trade infamy, let’s recall the trade of then-rookie first baseman Paul Konerko and pitcher Dennys Reyes to the Cincinnati Reds in July of 1998 in exchange for closer Jeff Shaw, who made his Dodgers debut in that year’s All-Star Game.
I recall this trade vividly because the trade happened on July 4, 1998, I was fifteen years old and I was watching the Dodgers actually play on national television for once without the Giants being involved. (I lived near Fresno, CA, which was, is, and remains in the heart of Giants broadcast territory.) Konerko got traded during the middle of the game. Shaw was serviceable during his tenure, appearing in 235 games, and pitching 235⅓ innings while going 9-17 with 129 saves and a 3.37 ERA in his four seasons with the Dodgers.
However, Paul Konerko had a Hall of Pretty Good career in 17 additional seasons after being dealt by the Reds to the White Sox playing 2,349 games, with a .279 batting average, 2340 hits, 439 HRs, 1412 RBI, a SLG of. 486, and an OPS of .841. Clearly, the Dodgers sold low on Konerko, which is not a slight against Shaw.
With that example in mind, we return to the 2017 Dodgers.
The 2017 Dodgers’ moves at the deadline
On July 31, 2017, the day of the trade deadline, the Dodgers made several deals to bolster the roster before the playoffs, while running away with the NL West. There were three moves done that day:
- The Dodgers acquire SP Yu Darvish from the Rangers for 2B/OF Willie Calhoun, RHP A.J. Alexy, and SS Brendon Davis;
- The Dodgers acquire RP Tony Cingrani from the Reds for OF Scott Van Slyke and C Henrik Clementina; and (why we are here)
- The Dodgers acquire RP Tony Watson from the Pirates for RP Angel German and INF Oneil Cruz
Here is what was said at TrueBlueLA at the time of the trade:
TrueBlueLA, Craig Minami, July 31, 2017:
The Dodgers announced that they received left-handed reliever Tony Watson from [the] Pittsburgh Pirates for two minor leaguers, infielder Oneil Cruz and right-handed pitcher Angel German, both of them play for the Class-A Great Lakes Loons....
Watson has not been used as a left-handed specialist as right-handed batters have faced him twice as much as left-handed batters.
Watson signed a one-year contract for $5.6M and he will be a free agent at the end of this season.
This type of deal is generally typical of a deadline deal. As Craig pointed out, both Cruz and German were in Class-A ball at the time of the trade. A decent reliever on a middling team is akin to owning a sports car in Manhattan - a luxury good that you do not need, especially if you have immediate needs elsewhere.
What did the Dodgers get?
Watson appeared in 24 games in the regular season for the Dodgers, going 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA, pitching 20 innings, giving up 15 H, 6 R (all earned), with 6 BB, and 18 Ks. However, Watson’s true value shined during the postseason. In the 2017 postseason, Watson appeared in 11 games, including games 2 through 6 of the World Series. Watson went 2-0 (both World Series wins) with 3 holds and a 2.57 cumulative ERA. Watson pitched 7 innings in the postseason, giving up 5 H, 3 R (2 earned), with 1 BB and 3 K.
All in all - not a bad pickup for two Class A players. Watson signed a contract with San Francisco in the offseason where he remained until the 2020 offseason. Watson bounced between the Phillies, Angels, and Giants in 2021 and is currently out of the league.
What did the Pirates get?
With Class-A players, barring poor decision-making in rushing them to the majors, prospects at this level tend not to arrive in the majors right away, or at all, depending on development.
Angel German never rose above AA-ball for Pittsburgh. After the 2017 season, in 2018, he was promoted to High-A ball in Bradenton where he went 1-3 and 3 Saves, with a 6.92 ERA as a reliever. He appeared in 35 games, pitching 40 1⁄3 innings, allowing 41 H, 34 R (31 earned), 5 HR, 28 BB, and 47 K. In 2019, he earned a final promotion to Double-A ball in Altoona where he went 3-3 and 2 Saves, with a 4.33 ERA as a reliever. He appeared in 39 games, pitching 52 innings, allowing 33 H, 25 R (all earned), 8 HR, 31 BB, and 48 K. Angel German elected free agency following the 2019 season. In 2020, Angel German signed with the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor league deal, being assigned to Montgomery. He was released on May 27, 2020, and has not pitched in professional baseball since.
As for Oneil Cruz, he remained at single-A West Virginia in 2018. In 2019, Cruz ended up in Rookie ball after starting at double-A Altoona for half the year before being demoted to high-A Bradenton for the second half. However, immediately after 2019, Cruz managed to secure some playing time with Peoria in the Arizona Fall League and then Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. In the COVID shortened year of 2020, Cruz played for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League.
In 2021, Cruz finally cracked it, starting at double-A Altoona, where he played for most of the year, before making a pit stop at triple-A Indianapolis and getting a cup of coffee in the Majors. This year, Cruz started at triple-A Indianapolis and was promoted to the Majors on June 20, 2022, where he went 2 for 5, with 2 R, 1 2B, and 4 RBIs against the Cubs. But that statline does not tell the whole tale.
3 innings into his 2022 debut, @Pirates' Oneil Cruz has registered:— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 21, 2022
☠️The hardest throw by an infielder in @MLB this year (96.7 mph)
☠️The hardest hit ball of the year by a Pirate (112.9)
☠️The 3 fastest sprint speeds of the year by a Pirate (31.5, 30.7, 30.3) pic.twitter.com/nScTK5mD4A
Cruz has cooled somewhat since his audacious debut (as of July 7, 2022), going 10 for 55 (.182) in fifteen games, with 6 R, 3 2B, 3 HR, 9 RBIs, 2 BB, and 19 K (I think I found the problem). That statline is an OBP of .207, a SLG of .400, and an OPS of .607.
At this point, it is worth noting that Cruz is six-foot, seven inches. Basically, he’s a power forward in basketball playing shortstop with ceilings in exit velocity and power that would make all but Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge blush. But you do not have to take my word for it:
Even if Cruz were to move to the outfield, he still projects as pretty good - at worst. Hmm, a physical prospect who does not look like anything we have seen before, who initially shocked the League. I swear that I have seen this scenario play out before.
Wait, this photograph looks familiar - why am I having an odd sense of deja vu?
I remember this home run. I lost my mind when I watched it live. It was truly iconic - why have I blotted it out from my memory?
That comparison to Yasiel Puig is not entirely fair, because Puig’s career was derailed by off-the-field issues, conflicts with teammates, and a failure to live up to his mammoth potential in a way not seen before or since. No one is comparing Cruz to Puig in that regard at all. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out that in September 2020, Cruz was involved in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic, where he faced possible jail time as a result of a collision that killed three people. No information past 2021 was available as to the outcome of that case. It is worth repeating, as far as I can tell, no one formally held Cruz to be responsible for the accident in any way, shape, or form.
But like Puig, Cruz is exciting to watch and keep an eye on to see if he can help a moribund Pirates franchise start playing better baseball. While Oneil Cruz has cooled in the intervening weeks, it is too early to say what his overall trajectory will be. In the end, Cruz made the Major Leagues, which is an achievement unto itself.
A trade where both clubs won
Looking back, it would be fair to say that this trade had winners on both sides. The Dodgers could not have asked anything more of Tony Watson in 2017, short of noticing the garbage can usage in the Houston dugout. The Pirates got two lottery ticket minor leaguers, one who did not develop but also one who is now a Major Leaguer.
And let’s not feel too sorry for the Dodgers in this instance. In 2021, the Dodgers were unable to deploy much in the way of bench depth, apart from signing Albert Pujols on a minimum salary deal once he was released from Anaheim. This year, the Dodgers have their own prodigal son, who has excelled in his short time with the team. Admittedly, this essay was started before Trayce Thompson’s resurgence, as I was seeing chatter that folks were clamoring for the return of Oneil Cruz. This train of thought never made sense to me because Cruz is an infielder. (Are folks really wanting Lux to be in the outfield - that seems like a terrible idea, but it might be worth exploring in a future essay.)
Whether Trayce Thompson will continue his solid play with the Dodgers is an open question. With the injury to Chris Taylor, it appears likely that he will continue to get regular playing time. Whether that statement is a blessing or a curse will only be known at the end of the year.
Granted, this essay may age like milk, especially if Oneil Cruz reaches an upper echelon of stardom, ala Frank Robinson or Pedro Martinez. But for now, this essay serves as a reminder that at the time, there was a valid defense for trading Oneil Cruz and Angel German for Tony Watson in 2017.