| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch thinks team can win in 2021 with ‘mindset change’
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch breaks down the team’s offseason entering the 2021 season Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
They train at an indoor batting cage — father, son and a Houston Astros legend.
Put another way: a Detroit Tigers coach, a Tigers prospect and a proud grandfather with a rubber arm.
Jose “Cheo” Cruz, who played 19 seasons in the major leagues, is tucked safely behind an L-screen, digging baseballs out of a bucket and throwing batting practice to his grandson, Trei Cruz, who the Tigers picked in the third round of the 2020 MLB draft.
Cheo is 73 years old but he can pitch BP for hours, like a trusty machine.
“I can throw one bucket (of balls), or two, or three — whatever,” Cheo said. “I’m blessed with my arm. You can ask my grandson. It’s a good workout for me and I stay busy and continue to be young. The only way you stay younger is to practice with the young guys.”
Trei gets old-school lessons from his grandfather — a two-time All Star and a member of Astros Hall of Fame — who stresses preparation, toughness and hustle.
And Trei gets a more modern approach from his father, Jose Cruz Jr., who hit 204 home runs during a 12-year MLB career and was recently hired as a Tigers coach.
“My dad is a guy who can pick apart a guy’s swing after four swings,” Trei said. “And he can tell that guy what he’s doing wrong. It’s pretty impressive.”
Trei, 22, said this about a month before his father was hired by the Tigers, and the idea is even more fascinating now.
Suddenly, this legendary MLB family is in position to make a lasting impact on the Tigers.
New Tigers manager AJ Hinch put on a full court press to bring Cruz Jr. to his coaching staff.
“I had a secret little nudge at the end, where Trei was encouraging him to go after a coaching dream that he’s got,” Hinch told reporters on a Zoom call. “I was so persistent. I wasn’t gonna let him get out of my claws when I had the right opportunity, the right entry, a family member in the organization and ultimately a coaching staff that I feel like it’s really dynamic and fits him like a glove.”
Hinch has given all of his coaches a simple marking order: make players better.
“Impact,” Hinch said. “I just want them to make players better and fit on a coaching staff that’s going to be intellectually curious. We’re gonna leave no stone unturned. We’re gonna have an incredible work ethic. And we’re gonna maximize our player potential. He’s got all those ingredients.”
A hitting prodigy
There have been five families in Major League Baseball history with three-generation of players reaching the big leagues according to the Baseball Almanac: the Bells (Gus, Buddy, David, and Mike), the Boones (Ray, Bob, Bret and Aaron), the Colemans (Joe, Joe Jr. and Casey), the Hairstons (Sammy, Jerry, Johnny, Jerry Jr. and Scott), and the Schofield/Werths (Dick Schofield, son-in-law Dennis Werth and stepson Jayson Werth).
Trei could make the Cruz family the sixth.
“I remember someone saying, ‘All the Cruz’s, they can hit,’” Cheo says.
But it starts in that batting cage.
“Trei has the best of both worlds,” his father says.
Not just in approach, mixing the old with the new, but in practice.
Trei is a switch-hitting shortstop who gets different looks during batting practice when facing his father (a righty) compared to his grandpa (a lefty).
“We just kind of do our thing without too much fuss,” Jose Jr. says. “Sometimes we get after it and it can be loud.”
One of Trei’s biggest strengths is a high baseball IQ, although that’s hardly surprising. He grew up in major league clubhouses, following his father around the country. Jose Jr. played for nine different organizations during his 12-year career.
“Every summer, I just followed my dad and went to every game he played and was in the clubhouse,” Trei said. “For me, that was me practicing baseball, just being around those guys, listing to them breakdown baseball.”
During pregame warmups, Trei shagged balls in the outfield or took grounders on the infield, and he watched games from the stands behind home plate or in the kid’s room at the stadium.
“I was very fortunate to be around with Barry Bonds when my dad was on the Giants,” Trei said. “He’s one of the greatest hitters of all time.”
Trei talked infield defense with Roberto Alomar, a 10-time Gold Glove winner.
“Alomar is one of the best defensive players of all time,” Trei said. “Carlos Delgado is another extremely good hitter and I was able to talk hitting with those guys. They would tell me what they’re thinking mentally and how they prepared.”
But more than anything, Trei learned from his grandfather and father.
Cheo was a two-time Sliver Slugger winner. In 1980, he finished third in the National League MVP voting after leading Houston to its first-ever division title and postseason berth.
Jose Jr., 46, was a talented all-around player in his own right. He was a first-round pick, finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 1997, won a Gold Glove in 2003 and hit more than 20 home runs in five seasons.
“Those guys are my lifeline, really,” Trei said. “They they’ve been with me every step of the way.”
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Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
Two different approaches
Jose Jr. retired in 2008 and was able to watch Trei play travel baseball and high school ball in Houston.
“That was very important to me, to be able to be there and to be around for many summers,” Jose Jr. said.
When Trei’s travel baseball team played at Cooperstown Dream Park in New York — a week-long tournament that features thousands of 12-year-old baseball players every summer — his father stayed with the team in a cabin, just like all the other coaches.
“Yes, exactly,” Jose Jr. said. “I stayed in the cabin, the whole deal.”
When Trei played at Rice, following in the footsteps of his father (1993-1995) and his uncle, Enrique, (2001-2003), Jose Jr. lived in a house 2 miles from the stadium.
“That turned out to be a big blessing,” Jose Jr. said. “It worked out great to be able to watch him and work with him. Be like, ‘hey, you’re doing this. Let’s work on it.’”
Off to the batting cage they went.
“Then boom, getting him back on track,” Jose Jr. said. “It was easy.”
Trei was hitting .328 when the 2020 season came to an early end because of COVID-19. He led the Owls with eight RBIs, a .487 on-base percentage, seven doubles and nine runs scored.
Cheo went to just about every game at Rice.
“My grandpa is about as old school as it gets,” Trei said. “He’s a believer that when you step on the field, it’s a battle and you need to click it on. You’re going 150% every play, no matter what. Every fly ball you hit, you’re thinking third base. Every ground ball, you’re thinking infield single. He’s very, very aggressive, high energy and a big hustle guy.”
If Trei hustled and played the game the right way, Cheo was happy.
Jose Jr. is far more technical.
“My dad is very, very advanced as a coach in general and all aspects defensively, hitting and base running,” Trei said.
When Trei was drafted by the Tigers, his family exploded in joy.
“It was like a combination platter of relief and excitement, because I mean, he could have gone anywhere from the first round to where he got taken,” Jose Jr. said. “I think he landed in a great spot with a lot of opportunities.”
‘Sky’s the limit’
Jose Cruz Jr. is the same age as Hinch, the new Tigers manager. Their careers overlapped in the majors, although they never played on the same team.
Hinch offered a spot on his staff to Jose Jr., even though he had never held an official coaching position.
“It’s very exciting,” Jose Jr. said. “It’s a very unique opportunity. For me, I mean, not only just to get my foot in the door, in the coaching world, but at the same time having my son being a top prospect in the same organization. So it was it was just a lot of things that were just positive about it.”
Even though it might get complicated, coaching in the same organization as his son, Jose Jr. isn’t worried. Tigers general manager Al Avila was in the front office at the same time his son, Alex, played catcher for the Tigers.
“I knew that (Al Avila) had gone through this and he understands,” Jose Jr. said.
There’s no telling how long Jose Jr. will stay in this role. He is more than a hitting coach. He has expertise in several areas of the game.
“He might fly through this job and end up on manager lists or bench coach lists,” Hinch said. “He can do a lot in the game when he puts his attention to it and now that he shifted over to the coaching side, you know, the sky’s the limit for him.”
The sky is the limit for Trei, as well, in part, because he is so honest about his own strengths and weakness.
The only way to fix a weakness is to understand that it’s a problem.
“The biggest weakness I have is really rushing the game,” Trei said. “I’m a very aggressive. I want to go after ball sometimes, and sometimes that gets me a little too greedy. So I’m kind of learning how to slow it down.”
He is also learning to be patient at the plate.
“I don’t need to go out and go get balls and try to force it,” he said. “I’ll continue to work on that and get better on that.”
One thing he doesn’t have to learn is how much impact a ballplayer can have on a fan base. He saw that from his grandfather, who is still beloved in Houston. Cheo has been called the first true Latino sports superstar in Houston.
“My dad affected multiple generations of Houstonians or Texans even for that matter when it came to baseball,” Jose Jr. said. “He was very humble. He’s always great with a crowd. I’ve never seen him turn down an autograph in my life. In Houston, he could probably run for mayor in this town and give someone a run for their money. Because he’s very, very well liked in the community.”
But now, this is Trei’s time.
“I’ve told him, you know, my dad, whatever he did, that’s his book,” Jose Jr. said. “What I did? That was mine. It’s all my story. Now it’s your turn. You don’t have to do anything with ours. It’s all yours. You’re writing the story to your book. It’s like, we don’t really matter. We’re gonna try and support you as much as you as you need. But now it’s up to you.”
A shortstop who comes from a family of outfielders, Trei is the No. 27 ranked prospect in the Tigers system, according to MLB Pipeline.
“I watch the way he walks, the way he does things,” Cheo says about his grandson, “To me, he’s going to be a good player. He’s the complete package for an infielder. Good glove, good arm, good range. Smart player. The way he hustles. And he swings it both sides pretty good. It looks like he loves the game by the way he plays. I think it’s going to be a good opportunity in Detroit.”
If that sounds like a proud, beaming grandpa, talking about a grandson who has entered the family business, you’ll just have to forgive him.