LAKELAND, Fla. — Jose De La Cruz has put the 2021 season behind him.
He is looking ahead.
“I decided that’s not what’s going to define me,” De La Cruz said.
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So far, he hasn’t panned out.
“There’s no pressure,” De La Cruz said last week, speaking through a team interpreter. “I’m just here to play my game. It doesn’t matter how much money you get from the bonus. This is baseball, and the game speaks for itself.”
De La Cruz, a right-handed hitter lauded for his raw power to all fields, moved to the United States for the 2021 season. He hit .203 with five home runs, 25 RBIs, 27 walks and 132 strikeouts in 83 games in Low-A and the Florida Complex League.
He is the Tigers’ No. 29 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
“At the beginning of the season, I had a very bad month,” De La Cruz said. “Like every baseball player, you have to make adjustments. I finished the season strong. With the new season, I have plans and new things I’m implementing.”
His struggles last season reached a breaking point in late April, when the Tigers demoted him from Low-A Lakeland to the Florida Complex League. De La Cruz logged a .127 batting average with one homer, 10 walks and 74 strikeouts in 39 games for the Flying Tigers.
The strikeouts were a product of an overly aggressive approach, but he never found his power stroke. As the strikeouts piled up, De La Cruz became overwhelmed in the batter’s box.
“It was frustrating for me,” De La Cruz said. “It took a lot from me. But then I realized I cannot live in the past. I have to move on and do the work every single day. If not, I’m not going to get into the higher levels (of the minors).”
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The Florida Complex League is reserved for rehabbing players and the youngest prospects in the United States. De La Cruz would have spent the 2020 season in this rookie-ball league, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor-league season.
After being demoted, De La Cruz posted better results.
He hit .270 with four homers, 17 walks and 58 strikeouts in 44 games. He had a .361 on-base percentage and .415 slugging percentage, compared to a .209 OBP and .183 SLG at the Low-A level.
“What I learned from the FCL was getting back my confidence and mindset to face the adversities,” De La Cruz. “I had to learn from what I did wrong. I’m trying not to repeat the same type of mistakes — general mechanics and approach at the plate.”
Entering the 2022 season, De La Cruz is destined for a repeat assignment at Lakeland. There are new international prospects at the forefront of the Tigers’ attention, particularly shortstops Cristian Santana and Manuel Sequera, as well as outfielder Roberto Campos.
Santana, from the Dominican Republic, signed for a franchise-record $2.95 bonus in January 2021 and already looks like a future MLB player; Sequera, from Venezuela, crushed 11 home runs last season and was named Florida Complex League MVP; Campos, from Cuba, inked a $2.85 million deal in July 2019 and has swagger as a power hitter.
“Get ready to see me in Double-A,” De La Cruz said. “That’s what I want to reach this year. In terms of what the fans can expect, it’s going to be a fun time to watch me because I have been working hard the whole offseason to correct the mistakes I made last year.”
Despite last season’s letdown, the Tigers invited De La Cruz to the team’s 62-player minor-league minicamp, which began in mid-February as a prelude to minor-league spring training. That means the organization still believes in his potential.
As for De La Cruz, he is eager to put himself back on the Tigers’ radar.
“Hell yeah,” he said.