Detroit Tigers prospect Trei Cruz wasn’t invited to minicamp: ‘Lights a fire under me’

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers prospect Trei Cruz isn’t angry, but he wishes he would have known the specifics of his injury sooner.

Cruz, the 73rd overall pick in the 2020 draft, played the first four games of his professional career for High-A West Michigan before dislocating his shoulder on a swing, sending him to the injured list in May 2021.

The Tigers diagnosed Cruz, he said, with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He rehabbed for one month and returned to games in June, July and August. Still, the shortstop’s shoulder problems lingered.

“It never got healthy from the original injury,” Cruz, 23, said Monday. “There wasn’t a time where I felt 100% and then came back. I never got to 100%. It’s because we were looking at it the wrong way, the rehab part.”

Cruz played 63 games last season for West Michigan (26 games), Low-A Lakeland (33 games) and the Florida Complex League (four games). He hit .161 with two home runs, 15 RBIs, 55 walks and 70 strikeouts, along with 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts.

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After the season, Cruz visited Dr. Patrick McCulloch — the team physician for the Houston Astros and Rice University. The Tigers already ran MRI scans, but McCulloch order an MRI scan with contrast, injecting a gadolinium-based dye into Cruz’s right shoulder.

Finally, Cruz got the information he was searching for. He had a partial tear of the posterior labrum in his shoulder. The new information jump-started an eight-week rehabilitation.

“There was some frustration because I wish I would have known it in May, but I don’t blame them,” Cruz said. “I know the Tigers did the best they could. It was weird because there wasn’t anything they did that I didn’t think was right.

“It was just, you know, this doctor (McCulloch) is really good. He’s a great doctor. He wasn’t upset at how the Tigers went about it, but he was like, let’s try a different way of going at this. The Tigers just saw a rotator cuff weakness, so they just went after that as opposed to all the other joints too.”

The misdiagnosis was one of many setbacks for Cruz in 2021.

He hit .159 with 22 walks and 25 strikeouts for the Whitecaps, then the Tigers demoted him to Low-A Lakeland on July 5. It was Cruz’s 23rd birthday. He drove more than 1,200 miles from Michigan to Florida.

“It was a tough day,” Cruz said. “I understood why I was going down. My shoulder wasn’t right. It just sucked. I was more frustrated with myself than anything because I wanted to be healthy. But I know the best facilities we have are in Lakeland, so I understood why they did it.”

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Upon his demotion to the Flying Tigers, Cruz hit .231 in eight games from July 7 through July 15. His momentum halted when he tested positive for COVID-19, sidelining him until July 30.

Cruz stayed in Low-A Lakeland for the rest of the year, finishing with a .162 batting average, 33 walks and 31 strikeouts in 33 games total.

“It’s never fun to play through pain, but I enjoyed every single step of it,” Cruz said. “I didn’t play to my expectations and what I know I’m capable of, but I learned a lot in that process. I learned a lot about what I need to do to be successful.”

While in TigerTown, Cruz received advice from three MLB players rehabbing from injuries in Lakeland: catcher Jake Rogers, left-handed pitcher Matthew Boyd and center fielder Derek Hill.

He also trained with Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell.

“I look at last year as more of an incomplete season,” Cruz said. “I played limited with my injury. The bar is really low for me right now, from what I did last year, and I can only go up from there. (The Tigers) obviously wanted to see more, and I don’t blame them.

“I want to see more from myself. But honestly, it makes me that much more excited for the season to show them what I can do, prove to myself the player that I am, move up in the ranks and get to the highest level I possibly can this season. I know what I can do.”

‘Bregman has been the most vocal with me’

Cruz completed his eight-week shoulder rehab in January. He used resistance bands, weighted balls and medicine balls, as well as other equipment.

The benchmark allowed him to begin throwing and swinging at full speed.

“Thank God I didn’t need surgery,” Cruz said. “I feel great now. I feel ready to go and as close to 100% as I could possibly be. My arm feels great throwing, and it feels good hitting. It’s been a breath of fresh air to feel like that again.”

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Outside of rehab activities, Cruz visited Houston-based trainer Wooch Graff and learned the Wim Hof breathing method.

Understanding how to control his breathing and heart rate should transition to his on-field performance. He now has techniques he can implement pregame, in the on-deck circle and in the batter’s box.

“It definitely can elevate my game in the sense of slowing the game down,” Cruz said. “For me, when I slow everything down, I’m at my best. Being able to control that and do that on command is going to be a game-changer for me.”

Cruz has been training at Rice University to prepare for the 2022 season. His father, Jose Cruz Jr., played 12 MLB seasons and became Rice baseball’s head coach in June after spending six months as the Tigers’ assistant hitting coach.

Of course, Jose is Trei’s personal hitting coach. Trei, a switch-hitter, has adjusted his swing mechanics.

“I’ve been learning to use the ground better on both sides, as opposed to being so handsy,” Cruz said. “We worked a lot on getting my lower half more involved and in sync with my hands to create more power. I’m working on weight shifting from my backside to my frontside.”

Several MLB players are working out at Rice’s Reckling Park as they wait for MLB’s lockout to end: Toronto Blue Jays outfielder George Springer, 13-year MLB infielder Jed Lowrie (free agent), Astros catcher Jason Castro, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, six-year MLB shortstop Trevor Story (free agent), San Diego Padres second baseman Adam Frazier, Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman and Minnesota Twins outfielder Derek Fisher.

“I’ve gotten bits and pieces of stuff from everybody,” Cruz said. “Bregman has been the most vocal with me. I talk to him the most. Adam Frazier talked about me hitting left-handed, and there was some good stuff he had to say there. Robbie Grossman has been great to me with being able to talk about switch-hitting. I’ve been able to pick his brain about what he thinks on both sides.”

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A few minor leaguers — Tampa Bay Rays catcher Ford Proctor, Rays infielder Tristan Gray and Tigers utility player Kody Clemens — attend the early morning training sessions, too. Clemens is on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, so he can’t report to the team’s facility in Lakeland until MLB drops the lockout.

But Cruz isn’t on the Tigers’ 40-man roster. He is traveling to Lakeland soon.

Cut from minicamp ‘lights a fire under me’

The Tigers opened minor-league minicamp, a prelude to minor-league spring training, in mid-February. Pitchers and catchers reported to Lakeland for practice Feb. 16, with the first full-squad workout Feb. 21.

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The 62-player minicamp roster included 21 of the Tigers’ top-30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. Five of the organization’s six draft picks in 2020 received invitations: Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler, Daniel Cabrera, Gage Workman and Colt Keith.

Cruz, ranked No. 20, wasn’t summoned.

“It was definitely frustrating because I originally got invited,” Cruz said. “They told me because of COVID and the uncertainty of the season that they were going to shorten the camp and have less guys show up. It was frustrating for me because I wanted to work with those guys. It definitely lights a fire under me. … I felt like I should be there, and I wanted to be there, but at the same time, I got to prove (myself) to these guys.”

Minor-league spring training kicks off March 10, when the rest of the organization’s pitchers and catchers join the workouts. Cruz is scheduled to arrive March 13 for his physical exam.

His training in TigerTown starts March 14.

Cruz hopes his second pro season takes him back to High-A West Michigan for the Whitecaps’ Opening Day on April 8, but he also wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers put him in Low-A Lakeland.

“The mindset is, it’s a new season, but I’m not just proving it to the Tigers, I want to prove to all of baseball that I can be one of the best in the game,” Cruz said, “and that I’m going to be in the big leagues, it’s just a matter of time. I want to show all of baseball what I got.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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