Ask a St. Louis Cardinals fan who their favorite player is and I bet the majority of the answers would be catcher Yadier Molina. Bring up the name Tony Cruz and you might get some confused looks.
Cruz has been the backup catcher for St. Louis the past two seasons, and has the good fortune to be mentored by the best in the game. He was picked by the Cardinals in the 26th round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft as a third baseman out of Palm Beach Community College. In his 2007 tryout he was asked to give it a go behind the plate and suddenly found his new calling with professional baseball.
As a catcher, Cruz is a solid defender. He moves quickly and has an average arm throwing out 31 percent of basestealers in Triple-A (2010-11) and was two for four in his first year in the majors. Last season he gained the confidence of the pitching staff and coaches with his meticulous game planning and awareness. Cruz is also very versatile in the field. Besides his catching abilities, Cruz–besides being a natural third baseman–can play first and even can take the outfield in a pinch.
Offensively, Cruz again is teetering on a middle of the road hitter. Working on his bat speed should be a priority because he hits to all fields fairly well. And don’t expect Molina-like power, as a full season would likely only yield eight to ten homers. Otherwise, Cruz had a good start at the plate in 2007 Single-A and Rookie League ball hitting .328 with an OPS of .863.
Things started to go downhill a bit once Cruz hit Double-A. His average dipped to .220 and his wRAA sat at -15.5 though he still had two walks to every one strikeout, so his plate discipline held strong.
Fast forward to 2011, Cruz started the year with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and was having a decent season hitting .262 before being called up for some time in St. Louis. His 38 games basically mirrored his production with Memphis and he didn’t make a single error in 99 innings behind the plate.
Last season, Cruz got a considerable amount of playing time which resulted in 126 plate appearances and a slightly below MLB average of .254; though that average is very good for a big league catcher. His OPS took a big hit as it sat at a career low (MLB and Minors) .632. He played very well behind the plate only making two throwing errors and throwing out eight of 26 basestealers in 293.1 innings.
Thus far in spring training, Cruz is struggling a bit with a .589 OPS while going three for 14 at the plate (one double). That sample size is not to be a judgement on Cruz’s ability but if he wants to remain the understudy to Molina, he’ll have to pick it up a bit.
All in all Cruz is a suitable backup to the best catcher in the game. He may not find a regular starting job in MLB but his versatility and defensive skills make him a valuable asset to the Cardinals.