Corbin Carroll and Elly De La Cruz face off in the Cincinnati-Arizona Series

Corbin Carroll and Elly De La Cruz face off in the Cincinnati-Arizona Series

Midway through last season, Zac Gallen, the right-hand ace for the Arizona Diamondbacks, found himself surveying the baseball landscape. Everywhere he looked, fantastic young players were remaking the game.

Julio Rodríguez, Seattle’s top prospect, brought the Mariners to life, turning a team that hadn’t made the postseason since 2001 into a contender. Bobby Witt Jr. made the Kansas City Royals roster after spring training despite being only 21 years old. And midway through the season, the Baltimore Orioles drafted Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, who immediately turned his team’s fortunes around.

“Where are we going to get one of these guys?” Gallen asked a member of the Arizona front office. “They are shopping at a different store.”

The answer: Be patient. Our guy is coming.

The Diamondbacks weren’t wrong. In August of that year, Arizona drafted outfielder Corbin Carroll. After showing promise in an extended audition, Carroll, 22, has put the Diamondbacks on his shoulders this season. A similar story played out in Cincinnati, where infielder Elly De La Cruz injected so much talent and energy into the Reds that the team immediately began to climb the ranks.

Together, Carroll and De La Cruz offer a portrait of just how much a transcendent young player can lift a previously moribund team. Their rookie teams will face each other this weekend in a three-game series at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, in which the two clubs are trying to shake off what has been a difficult period following the All-Star break.

Of course, a rough week here and there can be a good thing for these phenoms – because, until now, they’ve made things look too easy.

In 115 plate appearances through the end of 2022, Carroll batted . 260 with an . 830 on-base slugging percentage. This season, he has been nothing short of a revelation. 283 with an OPS of . 891 and was the National League’s starting outfielder in the All-Star Game. He is one of the fastest players in the majors and has stolen 28 bases. Despite being small — he’s muscular but lean, standing less than six feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds — he’s also second on the team with 18 home runs. He is a favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year Award and will likely receive votes for the Most Valuable Player Award as well.

If his teammates had any doubts, especially after Carroll signed a $111 million extension in spring training, they don’t anymore.

“Very quickly, you see the tools come out,” said first baseman Christian Walker, “and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’”

After losing 88 games last year — and an impressive 110 the year before — the Diamondbacks are a Carroll-powered contender, going 54-42 through Wednesday.

For De La Cruz and the Reds, the timeline of his rise was even shorter. After watching De La Cruz develop into one of baseball’s most exciting and talented players over the past two minor league seasons, Cincinnati called him up to the majors on June 6. At the time he arrived, Cincinnati was 27-33. Since then, with the help of De La Cruz’s towering home runs and outrageous speed, the Reds have gone 24-13, putting them in contention for the NL Central title and one of three NL wild card berths in the playoffs.

Although Carroll and De La Cruz are a study in physical contrasts – the 6ft 6in De La Cruz is what Carroll is but on the opposite end of the spectrum – they have remarkably similar abilities. They are great tacklers and are each other’s main competition for the title of the fastest man in baseball. They blast home runs to every field, with De La Cruz having success on both sides of the plate as a hitter and Carroll showing incredible power in the opposite field.

And they are worth, perhaps, more to their teams than the numbers can capture.

Advanced stats try to pin down his worth, of course — De La Cruz was worth 0.6 wins above replacement in his first 35 games, according to Baseball Reference, while a Carroll half season was worth 3.9 to Arizona — but there are unquantifiable factors for which numbers like that cannot be accounted for.

Earlier this month, when the Diamondbacks briefly worried about losing Carroll to a long-standing shoulder injury — the young outfielder was back in the lineup the next day — coach Torey Lovullo ran through some doomsday scenarios in his mind. “You talk about replacing elite players – I don’t know if you can do that,” said Lovullo the next day, when the danger had passed. Likewise, the Reds had a mediocre two months without De La Cruz. Adding him, according to veteran first baseman Joey Votto, “changes the culture of the team.”

“Let’s say he added a WAR or something since he joined the league,” said Votto. “I don’t think it’s always just that. I don’t think it’s just one more. I think there are some immeasurable things a player does when he joins a team.”

Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen agrees.

“While I know everyone says in baseball that one player doesn’t have that big of an impact on a team,” Hazen said, “I think if you’re adding an elite player, it happens.”

Since his many years with the Red Sox, Hazen has seen many incredible players drafted, including Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. Few have managed such an unflinching upward trajectory as Carroll.

For his part, De La Cruz was putting on an amazing show every day in Class AAA before he was called up to the majors. Votto saw it firsthand while returning from shoulder surgery in the minors. At 39 years old, and with 17 years in the majors, it’s hard to show the veteran first baseman something he’s never seen before.

“Stealing from home the other day was basically something he did on a daily basis,” Votto said of De La Cruz. “It’s like, ‘holy shit, he did that.’ Then the next day, ‘holy shit, this is new.’ Will not stop.”

Still, prodigies have things to prove. Carroll has yet to record a full season of major play. De La Cruz has had even less time, and despite his production and his regular appearances on the highlight reels, he’s batting at a prodigious pace. His teams face a similar test of longevity. After rising to the top of the division, both the Reds and Diamondbacks dropped slightly in the standings.

The fact that the Diamondbacks and Reds are tied in the postseason conversation, however, is a testament to the impact of Carroll and De La Cruz, and also how much talent was built around them. (Ask any Los Angeles Angels fan if you can win with just one or two transcendent stars.)

In addition to Carroll, Arizona received strong performances from veterans such as Gallen, Ketel Marte and Merrill Kelly. In Cincinnati, De La Cruz is part of a bizarre class of young talent that includes Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott and Matt McLain. And that crop of young players was further bolstered this week when the team drafted another top prospect in Christian Encarnacion-Strand.

If Carroll is named the best rookie in the NL, it’s a safe bet that several Reds players will fill some of the spots behind him.

But to make the playoffs, both teams will need more. In a twist, both will likely work with similar shopping lists. Each needs help from the bullpen and the starting pitch. And despite calling out their top prospects, both teams have strong enough farm systems to be capable of major upgrades.

The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, and aside from a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign in which the playoff field was expanded, the Reds haven’t advanced to the postseason in a decade. Both teams are positioned to win now. And they both have a pretty good idea of ​​who to thank for it.

“We only needed one more thing. We were so close,” Walker, 32, who last played in the playoffs as a rookie, said of Carroll. “He was the tipping point.”

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