“But we don’t want to take it away from him completely, because that’s an ability God gave him and it’s a special gift,” continued DiPuglia. “Maybe you don’t want him to throw the ball between his legs and behind his back and all. Now and then you have to let yourself be expressed by him. Because it is. “

The next clip is from the same training in the same field in Santo Domingo. Cruz drifts to his left, stabbing a grounder and, after sending it to his hand in one motion, swings the ball behind his right ear and throws it first. Next he takes a grounder and with a half turn throws a throw behind his back towards the second. To end the sequence, he does the thing between the legs on the run, making it look like a rational way of playing shortstop.

Sure, as DiPuglia noted, it cannot be. However, these were just portions of the videos that headlined an international class of 10 players in the months and weeks leading up to the Nationals’ release of Cruz. His signing bonus was the highest Washington has given any Latin American prospect. He finished fifth on MLB.com’s international rankings for that class. He is a remarkably lithe defender. The Nationals believe he will exceed expectations for his racket.

DiPuglia is usually reluctant to offer MLB comps for such a young player. With Cruz, however, DiPuglia is reminded when he searched the shortstop José Iglesias for the Boston Red Sox. The 31-year-old Iglesias has played nine major league seasons and was traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Los Angeles Angels in December.

“Some scout experts say he won’t beat but I disagree,” DiPuglia said of Cruz. “I think he will hit. I think he has really good balance, really good barrel awareness. He’s a risky batsman. He hits the ball on all fields. His hands are playing on the plate. “

The Nationals became very interested in Cruz when they saw him in a tournament about 18 months ago. At this point, they set up what DiPuglia called the “court press,” making Cruz their priority in that class. DiPuglia was most encouraged by Cruz to improve on his plate every time he saw him. The longtime Boy Scout is used to going the other way, teenagers regressing or showing inconsistencies because they are teenagers.

But Cruz just kept pointing up. He’s 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, and DiPuglia expects him to stay on the smaller side. The Nationals agree, and hope that time and growth won’t hold back what Cruz does best.

Prospects in the balance

When it comes to the next steps for Cruz and the nine other Nationals signatories, DiPuglia is concerned about their development. The coronavirus pandemic led to a complete cancellation of the minor league season in 2020. There is already a threat of shortening the schedule this year. The Academy of Nationals in Boca Chica remains closed for security reasons, especially for the Dominican players.

From here, the Nationals will work to obtain a five-year work visa for each of the players they sign. After that, they’re not sure whether the players will stay in their hometowns – a mix of Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Aruba – or head to West Palm Beach, Florida for minor league training in the spring. That is expected to begin as soon as the big leaggers leave for Washington. But every date on the calendar is a moving target.

The usual schedule is for the Latin American teenagers to play in the Dominican Summer League, then perhaps the Gulf Coast League in West Palm Beach, and then in Florida for instruction at the team’s complex. DiPuglia believes that while all young players are pending, Latin American players are even more affected by this uncertainty.

“I’m really worried about this because they have to adapt to the US culture,” DiPuglia explained. “And the only way to adapt to the culture in the states is to play in it. If you can’t leave your island it’s really difficult. “

A lottery ticket

The Nationals international signing class consisted of five players from the Dominican Republic, four from Venezuela and one from Aruba. Lonely Aruban – right-handed Jefrem Leon – is 18 years old and signed for $ 10,000.

“I mean, it’s like Alabama scouting Wyoming or Idaho. You have to take a risk, ”said DiPuglia. “This child is big; He has a loose arm. The only problem with kids is when they go home they don’t have the competition. You go to the Dominican and meet .220; It’s pretty hard to survive in your neighborhood when a few other people hit .280, .290, .300 and rip you all the way.

“But that’s a small risk for us and we’ll see what happens. As I always say, in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela we try to do the best we can and then everything else is sauce. “

When DiPuglia was with the Red Sox, he signed shortstop Xander Bogaerts in Oranjestad, Aruba. The 28-year-old is now a two-time all-star and one of the best players in his position. That doesn’t mean Leon is destined for the same success. It’s just a reason to believe where others often don’t look.

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