Halfway through last season, Arizona Diamondbacks quarterback Zack Gallen found himself checking out the baseball landscape. Wherever he looked, great young players were reshaping the game.
Seattle MVP Julio Rodriguez has breathed life into the Mariners, turning a team that hasn’t made it to the postseason since 2001 into a contender. Bobby Witt Jr. made the Kansas City Royals out of spring training despite being only 21. Midway through the season, the Baltimore Orioles called up top pick Adley Rochman in the 2019 draft, who promptly turned his team’s fortunes around.
“Where do we get one of these men?” asked a member of the front office in Arizona, Galen. “They’re shopping at a different store.”
the answer: be patient. Our man is coming.
The Diamondbacks weren’t wrong. That August, Arizona called up outfielder Corbin Carroll. After showing promise in what amounts to an extended test, Carroll, 22, has put the Diamondbacks on his shoulders this season. A similar story played out in Cincinnati, where player Eli de la Cruz injected so much talent and energy into the Reds that the team immediately began moving up the standings.
Together, Carroll and De La Cruz provide a picture of just how much a super young player can lift a once moribund team. Their rookie teams will face off this weekend in a three-game series at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, as both clubs try to shake off what was tough coming out of the All-Star break.
Of course, it’s a tough week here and there could be something good for these phenomena – because, so far, they’ve made things look so easy.
In 115 plate appearances to finish 2022, Carroll batted . 260 with a . 830 on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. This season, it has been nothing short of an advertisement. 891 OPS, and was a National League starter in the All-Star Game. He is one of the fastest players in the league and has stolen 28 bases. Although he’s small—he’s musclebound but wiry, standing just under 6 feet tall and weighing under 200 pounds—he’s also the team’s second-leading with 18 home runs. He’s a favorite for the NL’s Rookie of the Year award and likely gets votes for the MVP award as well.
If his teammates had any doubts, especially after Carroll signed a $111 million extension in spring training, they won’t be anymore.
“You see the tools come out so quickly, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal,'” said First Constable Christian Walker. “
After losing 88 games last year — and a whopping 110 the year before — the Diamondbacks are tough Carroll competitors, sitting at 54-42 through Wednesday.
For de la Cruz and the Reds, the timeline for their rise has been even shorter. After watching De La Cruz develop into one of the most exciting and talented players in baseball over the last two minor league seasons, Cincinnati called him up on June 6. Since then, aided by a towering De La Cruz 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 spots in the playoffs.
Although Carroll and De La Cruz are a study in physical contrasts — the 6-foot-5 De La Cruz is every bit of an outgoing Carroll, but on the opposite end of the spectrum — they have remarkably similar skills. They are great defensemen and are each other’s main competition for the title of the fastest man in baseball. They splashed home runs to all fields, with De La Cruz succeeding from both sides of the plate as a switch hitter and Carroll showing uncanny strength on the opposite field.
And they, perhaps, deserve their teams more than numbers can capture.
Advanced statistics try to quantify its value, of course — De La Cruz was worth 0.6 wins above replacement in his first 35 games, according to Baseball Reference, while Carroll’s half-season was worth 3.9 for Arizona — but there are non-quantifiable factors that numbers like these can’t account for.
Earlier this month, when the Diamondbacks briefly worried they’d lost Carroll to a long-term shoulder injury — the youngster returned to the lineup the next day — manager Torey Lovolo ran through some doomsday scenarios in his mind. “You’re talking about replacing elite players—I don’t know if you can do that,” Lovolo said the next day when the danger had passed. Likewise, the Reds had an average two months without de la Cruz. His addition, according to veteran senior captain Joey Votto, “changes the team’s culture.”
“Let’s say he’s added one war or something since he joined the league,” Votto said. “I don’t think it’s always just that. I don’t think it’s just a plus one no matter what. I think there are some immeasurable things that a player does when he joins a team.”
Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen agrees.
“Even though I know everyone says in baseball that one player doesn’t have that much of an impact on a team, I think if you’re adding an elite player, it does,” Hazen said.
Dating back to his many years with the Red Sox, Hazen has seen many great players called up, including Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogaerts. Few have been able to unbend an upward trajectory like Carroll.
For his part, De La Cruz had an amazing showing every day in Class AAA before being called up to the majors. Futu saw her live while on his way back from shoulder surgery in the palace. At 39, with 17 in the majors, it’s hard to show the veteran first baseman something he hasn’t seen before.
“The housebreaking that day was something he did every day,” Votto said of de la Cruz. It’s like, “Holy cow, he did it.” Then the next day, ‘Holy cow, this is new.’ It won’t stop.”
However, Wonderland has things to prove. Carroll has yet to score a full season of games in the majors. De La Cruz has less time, and despite his production and regular appearances on highlight reels, he pulls off at an amazing pace. Their teams face a similar test of longevity. After zooming into the lead, the Reds and Diamondbacks both slipped a bit down the standings.
That the Diamondbacks and Reds are in the postseason conversation, however, is a testament to the influence of Carroll and De La Cruz, as well as to the amount of talent built around them. (Ask any Los Angeles Angels fan if you can win just one or two stars.)
In addition to Carroll, Arizona State received strong performances from veterans such as Gallen, Kettlemart, and Merrill Kelly. In Cincinnati, De La Cruz is part of an odd class of young talent that includes Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott, and Matt McClain. And that group of young players was boosted even further this week when the team called up another prospect, Cristian 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 slots behind him.
But to make the playoffs, both teams will need more. In a twist, both of them are likely to work on similar shopping lists. All of them need help bullpen and start promotion. And despite calling out the best leads, both teams have robust enough farm systems that they’re capable of major upgrades.
The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, and other than a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, in which the field for the playoffs was expanded, the Reds haven’t advanced to the postseason in a decade. Both teams are ready to win now. And they both have a pretty good idea of who to thank for that.
“We just needed one more thing. We were so close,” Walker, 32, who experienced the playoffs for the last time as a rookie, said of Carroll. “It was the turning point.”