Cruz Catching On Behind The Plate





ST. LOUIS — When Tony Cruz made the short drive from his Florida home to the Cardinals' facility in the same county he had no idea the detour his career was about to take.

It started with one inning behind the plate. It's become a route to the majors.
Cruz impressed enough during that brief tryout in 2007 to merit a 26th-round pick in that summer's draft. A third baseman in junior college, Cruz was soon shifted to catcher by the Cardinals. It wasn't foreign territory, but the only inning he'd played there in the previous two years or so was during the tryout.

"And I could have been better," he deadpanned.

Cruz, 24, has improved behind the plate each season while yielding some but not too much from his ability at the plate. This past winter, the Cardinals put Cruz on the 40-man roster and positioned him to assume some of the catching duties at Triple-A Memphis with Bryan Anderson, who has long been perceived as the better prospect behind the plate. Cruz has closed that gap.

The righthanded-hitting Cruz batted .282/.352/.433 at three levels in 2010, splitting more of his time between high Class A and Double-A. He had an .840 OPS in 40 games in the Texas League, and he gained the confidence of a young rotation there. Cruz has good enough arm strength for the position. His footwork has improved, and his handling of a game is maturing with experience. With the spring training facility almost in his backyard, Cruz started coming several weeks before the start of the spring to catch whatever pitcher was around.

He said catching was "all about timing, too" and by coming early he was not only able to mingle with some of the major leaguers but also get a head start on his own conditioning.

Cruz still takes the occasional groundball at third base, but he's invested in the Cardinals' plan to keep him at catcher as long as he's improving at it. His bat is a better fit there, especially if he can show that his .220/.281/.366 turn through Double-A in 2009 was a learning curve complicated by the new position.

REDBIRD CHIRPS

• After MLB's validation of his paperwork, Venezuelan shortstop Leobaldo Pina finalized a deal with the Cardinals for a signing bonus of $315,000. Pina, 16, will play for the Cardinals' Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team.

• The Cardinals will not field a team in the Venezuelan Summer League this season, preferring instead to move their prospects to the DSL. The club will still keep scouts in the country and hold tryouts there.