Midway through last season, Arizona Diamondbacks ace right-hander Zach Garren found himself investigating the state of baseball. As far as he could see, great young players were remaking the game.
Seattle’s top prospect, Julio Rodriguez, brought the Mariners to life, turning a team that hadn’t made the postseason since 2001 into a championship favorite. Bobby Witt Jr. has joined the Kansas City Royals squad from spring training, despite being only 21 years old. And midway through the season, the Baltimore Orioles called up 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Lachman and quickly turned the team’s fortunes around.
“Where can I get those guys?” Galen asked a member of the Arizona Front Office. “They are shopping at another store.”
Here is the answer: be patient. my guy is coming
The Diamondbacks did nothing wrong. That August, Arizona called up outfielder Corbyn Carroll. Carroll, 22, is carrying the Diamondbacks this season after performing promisingly in extended auditions. A similar story unfolded in Cincinnati, where infielder Ellie Delacruz injected so much talent and energy into the Reds that the team quickly began to climb the rankings.
Together, Carol and Dela Cruz portray how transcendent young players can lift a previously moribund team. The two clubs’ upstart teams are set to meet in a three-game series at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park this weekend, as both clubs look to ease the strain after the All-Star break.
Of course, even a rough week here and there can be good for these geniuses. Because so far they’ve made things look way too easy.
Appearing in 115 plate appearances by the end of 2022, Carroll had a .260 batting average, a .830 on-base percentage, and a slugging percentage. This season he has been nothing short of a revelation. 283 batting average and .891 OPS, he was the starting outfielder for the National League in the All-Star Game. He is one of the fastest players in the majors and has 28 stolen bases. Despite his diminutive build, he is muscular but wiry, standing less than 6 feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds. He is also second on the team with 18 home runs. He’s a front-runner for the National League Rookie of the Year award and will probably get votes for the Most Valuable Player award as well.
If teammates had questions, they no longer have them, especially after Carroll signed a $111 million contract extension in spring training.
First baseman Christian Walker said, “You’re going to see Tool in no time and be like, ‘Wow, this is real.'”
After losing 88 games last year and a whopping 110 games the year before, the Diamondbacks are title contenders with Carroll and are 54-42 through Wednesday.
For De La Cruz and the Reds, their comeback timeline was even shorter. After watching Dela Cruz grow into one of baseball’s most exciting and talented players in the last two minor league seasons, Cincinnati called him up to the majors on June 6. Cincinnati was 27-33 when he arrived. Since then, aided by Dela Cruz’s incredible home runs and incredible speed, the Reds are 24-13 in contention for the NL Central title and one of the NL’s three wild-card spots in the playoffs.
Carol and Dela Cruz are a study of physical contrasts, but although Dela Cruz, at 6’5″, is in every way far from Carol, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and they possess strikingly similar skills. They are great defenders and are the main competitors to each other for the title of baseball’s fastest man. They hit home runs all over the field, with Dela Cruz succeeding from both sides of the plate as a switch hitter and Carroll showing tremendous power on the other side of the field.
And perhaps they’re worth more to the team than the numbers can measure.
Sophisticated statistics, of course, try to define that value—Baseball Reference says Dela Cruz is worth 0.6 wins over a substitution in the first 35 games, and Carroll’s half-season is worth 3.9 wins for Arizona—but there are unquantifiable factors that those numbers don’t explain.
When the Diamondbacks briefly worried earlier this month that Carroll had lost Carroll to a long-term shoulder injury (the young outfielder was back in the line the next day), manager Tory Lovro had a few doomsday scenarios in mind. “You talk about replacing an elite player, but I don’t know if it’s possible,” said Lovullo the day after the danger had passed. Likewise, the Reds have had a mediocre two months without Dela Cruz. According to veteran first baseman Joey Votto, adding him “changes the culture of the team.”
“Let’s say he joined the league and then added one WAR or something,” Bott said. “I don’t think it’s always just that. I don’t think it’s just a plus one. I think when a player joins a team, there are some things that are immeasurable.”
Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen agrees.
“I know everyone in baseball says that one player doesn’t make a big impact on a team, but if you add an elite player, I think it makes a big impact,” Hazen said.
Over the course of his long career with the Red Sox, Hazen has seen many great players called up, including Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. Few people have been able to follow an upward trajectory without turning as well as Carroll.
Dela Cruz was performing great every day at AAA before being called up to the majors. Botto saw it on his way back from shoulder surgery in the minors. It is difficult to show a veteran first baseman who is 39 years old and has been in the majors for 17 years in a way that he has never seen before.
“The stealing the other day was basically what he did every day,” Bott said of Dela Cruz. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he did that.’ And the next day, ‘Oh my God, that’s new.’ It won’t stop. ”
Still, the prodigy has something to prove. Carroll has yet to play a full season’s worth of games in the majors. Delacruz has even less playing time, striking out at an astounding pace despite his regular appearances in his productions and highlight reels. Their team faces a similar lifespan test. The Reds and Diamondbacks slipped back a bit after jumping to the top of the division.
But the fact that the Diamondbacks and Reds are even in postseason talks is also a testament to both Carroll and Delacruz’s influence and just how much talent is growing around them. (Ask any Los Angeles Angels fan if the transcendental star could beat him with just one or he with just two.)
In addition to Carroll, Arizona has had strong performances from veterans such as Galen, Ketel Marte and Meryl Kelly. In Cincinnati, Delacruz is part of an exceptional group of young talent that includes Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott and Matt McClain. And this week, the team’s call-up of another top prospect, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, further bolstered its young squad.
If Carroll is named the National League’s top rookie, there’s no doubt that several Reds players will fill some of the slots behind him.
But both teams will need more to make the playoffs. With a twist, the two would likely end up working on similar shopping lists. Each needs bullpen help and a starting pitcher. And despite calling in top prospects, both teams have strong enough farm systems that they should be able to make significant upgrades.
The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, and aside from the 2020 season when the playoff field was expanded and shortened due to the pandemic, the Reds haven’t made the postseason in a decade. Both teams are now in a position to win. And both have a good idea of who to thank for it.
“I needed one more thing. We were that close,” Walker, 32, who last made the playoffs as a rookie, said of Carroll. “He was the turning point.”