The Atlanta Braves didn’t have to do a lot of bullpen churning during the 2022 season, but when they did need a fresh arm, Jesus Cruz filled the role at various points during June.
Cruz was released by the Cardinals on March 30 and signed a minor league deal with Atlanta on April 6.
What were the expectations?
Cruz had appeared in just one game at the major league level during his time with the Cardinals, so there were essentially no expectations for him in Atlanta other than to provide depth at Gwinnett. His stats at Gwinnett prior to his call-up were okay-but-not-great for a guy mostly pitching in short-stint relief.
Cruz reported to Gwinnett and pitched well enough to get noticed. Atlanta selected his contract on May 29 when they optioned Tucker Davidson back to Gwinnett after a three-start stint in the majors. Cruz pitched well in limited opportunities allowing allowing four hits and one run over his first six appearances. He was optioned back to Gwinnett on June 20 as the Braves had to get down to the 13 pitcher limit. At that time, Cruz, while working exclusively in a mop-up/garbage time capacity, nonetheless had a 36/75/105 line with positive WPA across six appearances, each spanning an inning.
Cruz returned to the majors on June 28 when Kenley Jansen was placed on the Injured List with an irregular heartbeat. He was pressed into mop up duty on June 30 where he allowed four hits and five runs in 2 2/3 innings after Ian Anderson was knocked out of a game early against the Phillies. This was also the game that infielder Mike Ford made a pitching appearance. In that one appearance, Cruz had two walks to one strikeout, and allowed three homers. Remember that his line was 36/75/105 in six innings prior to this game. After this game, and enshrined for his 2022 season, it ballooned to 151/201/133.
Cruz was optioned back to Gwinnett on July 1 as the Braves added a fresh arm in Silvino Bracho to the active roster. He was then outrighted off the 40-man roster to clear a spot for Danny Young, who Atlanta claimed off waivers from Seattle. He finished the season with -0.2 fWAR, entirely attributable to that one horrid appearance.
What went right? What went wrong?
Save that one outing in mop-up duty, Cruz pitched reasonably well for a random mop-up call-up guy during his limited opportunities. He appeared in 28 games at Gwinnett where he had a 4.23 ERA and a 4.41 FIP. Cruz had a strikeout rate of over 32 percent with the Stripers, but also ran a walk-rate of 13.2 percent which has been the story on him throughout his professional career.
Cruz showed both a good fastball and a good idea of what to do with it, but he lacks the type of slider that could really help him be an effective reliever and take the pressure off his fastball. In particular, he couldn’t really get his slider to finish anywhere near the knees, which made it easier for hitters to sit on his fastball.
Here’s Cruz blowing away someone named Jose Herrera with a high fastball for his first Braves strikeout, which came in the only game he had WPA that rounded to above 0.00:
And here’s Cruz with his single-highest WPA play of the year, a double play ball off the bat of C.J. Cron in a blowout. This was one of his rare sliders that stayed in the zone, by virtue of apparently not moving at all.
But, here’s Kyle Schwarber turning a big lead into a rout off Cruz, the first of three homers the Phillies smashed off of him in the span of four batters:
What reliever throws an 0-2 fastball, especially after getting that 0-2 count thanks to two fastballs?
Cruz became a minor league free agent on October 14. He is still just 27 and will look for another team to latch on with before Spring Training. There’s not much there to recommend, but maybe he finds a way to improve his slider or something.