Friday, December 1 2023

BALTIMORE ― There’s a certain wonder for, and an appreciation from, the athlete embarking on a career’s journey, and one nearing the culmination.

For the Cincinnati Reds, there’s suddenly no shortage of joy, found in their stunning rise to first place and a 12-game winning streak, longest in more than six decades, abruptly reversing the fortunes of a franchise.

“It’s really just the start,” rookie phenomenon Elly De La Cruz says through an interpreter, “of what we will try to accomplish up here.”

Joey Votto can only hope to be there for it.

Six months after De La Cruz’s birth in 2002, the Reds drafted Votto from a Canadian school and he has been a cornerstone since. At 39, in his 17th year with the Reds, Votto was dreadfully late to this party, yet arrived with the assured strut of a guest they wouldn’t start without.

Shoulder surgery excused his absence since August 2022, and while he killed time documenting his chess exploits and sharing cheeky videos to social media, the six-time All-Star’s 10-month absence burned while his team grew up without him.

Turns out he wasn’t too tardy.

“It’s one of the more memorable, more enjoyable stretches in my career,” Votto, who homered in his first 2023 game, tells USA TODAY Sports. “Because I’ve been in the same uniform and I’m watching the way people perceive the Cincinnati Reds, the players on the team, the hope in the organization and in the city change.


“And to join it and be able to participate and be one of the guys leading the team toward success means a lot to me.”

Certainly, the Reds’ first trip to the top of the division − at any juncture, for any duration − since 2017 may not stick over the season’s second half. The National League Central is a tightly bunched basket of mediocrity, with all five teams within 8 ½ games of first and the Reds’ one great streak vaulting them, at 41-37 entering Monday’s action, to the top.

Yet the collection of talent and its ability to blossom at the major league level cannot be ignored.

Entering Monday, five of the Reds’ top six players in Wins Above Replacement were either rookies or second-year players − a group that for now does not include De La Cruz. No. 3 on the list is rookie shortstop Matt McLain, drafted 17th overall out of UCLA in 2021 yet already accruing 1.7 WAR, a .325 average and .922 OPS since his May 15 debut.


Rookie pitcher Andrew Abbott debuted June 5 and has given up just three runs in four starts. Center fielder TJ Friedl and closer Alexis Diaz almost feel like old news, ranking 1-2 in team WAR but technically not rookies.

This season brought no guarantees when the club broke camp minus several blue-chip players. But they knew.

“It’s a feeling within ourselves,” says McLain. “Nothing is promised or guaranteed. I think in the back of my mind, in the back of everybody’s mind that got called up, hey, you’re close but you gotta keep getting better. But there were no promises made.

“We knew who we were as players and how we could help the team coming up.”


De La Cruz did not help the club so much as transform it.

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‘You don’t see that anywhere else’

He doubled in his debut, which the Reds won in walk-off fashion on fellow rookie Will Benson’s first career home run. Two weeks later, Votto homered in his season debut; the win streak was eight games.

It continued through last week, as De La Cruz piled up a two-hit game, three-hit game and, Friday, produced the Reds’ first cycle since Eric Davis in 1989. They toppled Atlanta, 11-10, a fitting coda to their 12-game streak.


Small sample, but it’s kind of what De La Cruz can do: He tallied 22 hits, five stolen bases and three homers in his first 15 games, the first player in modern history to do so, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Elevating Elly De La Cruz to the big leagues has been a big reason for the Reds' resurgence.Elevating Elly De La Cruz to the big leagues has been a big reason for the Reds' resurgence.

Elevating Elly De La Cruz to the big leagues has been a big reason for the Reds’ resurgence.

Offensive skills aren’t supposed to transfer so easily from the minor leagues − where De La Cruz hit 28 homers, stole 47 bases and produced a .945 OPS in high Class A and AA in 2022 − to the majors. Yet De La Cruz clearly is different beyond his 6-foot-5 frame for an infielder.

“We know he’s going to keep getting better,” says Reds manager David Bell. “It really stands out to me how well he listens and how observant Elly is. He sees everything.


“We’ve tried not to, like, really coach him. But the little things you say, he gets it right away. He’s definitely smart, but what stands out is how he observes.”

Bell believes De La Cruz, a shortstop playing third at the moment gets shortchanged for his defensive skills, citing his graceful movements and ability to cover ground quickly. His throwing motion unfurls and the ball jumps out of his hand.

“It all looks like it’s happening slower than it is,” says Bell. “He has an ability to make a play anywhere on the field.”

McLain’s scouting report is a bit more succinct.


“Crazy stuff on the bases,” he says. “Obviously he hits the ball hard, really harder than anyone. Throws the ball really hard. Plays really good defense.

“But the running is different. You don’t see that anywhere else.”

Statcast has already clocked De La Cruz’s peak sprint speed at 31.5 mph, and his 30.8 average leads the majors. At 21, he’s already posted a top exit velocity of 116.6 mph − 118.8 in the minors − which is an area of potential growth.

“He does everything,” says left fielder Jake Fraley, “at an elite clip.”

All befitting a potential franchise player, whose arrival is embraced by their current one.


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‘I have to perform right now’

Votto’s entire adult life has been spent with the Reds, a path ensured by his 10-year, $225 million contract signed in 2012. That contract expires after this season, but Votto’s mindset is even more urgent.

“I have to perform well right now,” he says. “That’s where my head’s at.”

The 2010 MVP and likely Hall of Famer has already left a mark on the next generation, even if most of his work came as something of a camp counselor.

“We talked about this back in spring training last year, actually: To develop a plan, execute it and keep working on it,” says De La Cruz. “Sure enough, I’ve been sticking to that same plan.”


McLain has spent the past couple springs with Votto and, as a happy byproduct of the first baseman’s rehab assignments, been his teammate at Class AAA Louisville. McLain can sense Votto’s intensity in pregame cage work, in rudimentary pregame fielding drills, while running sprints in the outfield during batting practice.

“He’s been a really good teammate to me, has been such a role model because he’s done it so long,” says McLain. “Just his presence and taking it all in and seeing him do it at this age is unbelievable. He works so hard, it’s awesome to see.”

Votto’s tenure stretches to 2008, when the Reds reached the playoffs in three of his first six years, but never again in a full season after 2013. They finished in last place or next-to-last in seven of the nine years that followed.

It bottomed out last year, the Reds losing 100 games for the first time since 1982, the fans disillusioned with ownership and attendance dropping to 1.39 million, lowest since 1984.

Votto is grateful the young core was entirely or largely shielded from such futility.

“These guys are so fun to play with,” says Votto. “They’re hungry. And they’ve got a chance to be good major league players.

“Most importantly, they’re being brought up in a winning environment. It’s important to normalize that as a young player.  They just started. So, give them some time. They’re getting better here.”

Monday night, the Reds slipped out of first place with a 10-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The top spot in the division figures to be passed around like an appetizer plate all summer. Any hope the Reds pull off the improbable likely rests with the return of starting pitchers Hunter Greene (possibly back next month from a hip injury) and Nick Lodolo (perhaps August, when a stress reaction calms down).

Regardless, a new era has likely arrived, one that few, save for the protagonists, saw coming.

“I always knew,” says De La Cruz. “When I worked with them down in the minors, I always knew we’d all get called up someday and we’d work together to get some wins.

“We’re all seeing that now.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cincinnati Reds ride Elly De La Cruz, other rookies to relevance

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