May 21, 2024

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How Eli De La Cruz and the Reds plan to compete this season

How Eli De La Cruz and the Reds plan to compete this season

When Cincinnati Reds shortstop Eli De La Cruz burst onto the scene a season ago, his every move became an instant highlight reel. He helped re-energize a win-hungry fan base by displaying a rare combination of power and speed while making Reds games must-see television in the process.

After all, who can lead the league in sprint speed, hitting the ball at 119.2 mph and throwing it at 97.9 mph across the field?

But for all the hype that came with a first season that propelled the Reds into postseason contention, De La Cruz's final numbers — a .235/.300/.410 slash line — didn't live up to the hype and his numbers. The team finished two games out of last place in the National League playoffs.

“We were one game away the last weekend,” second baseman Jonathan India said. “It shocked us. We could have been the Diamondbacks. He sat with me all season. I hate losing more than I like winning.”

This year, the focus in Cincinnati is on turning all that flash into results that get the Reds into postseason baseball for the first time since 2020 — and that starts, of course, with their budding star.

“It definitely got more aggressive and energetic when we started winning,” outfielder Spencer Steer said. “It all started with Eli getting called up and running away 12 in a row. It just goes to show that the city wants a winning baseball team. They deserve it. It's been a long time coming.”

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After a period of hard work, which included time spent honing his hitting with former major league catcher Fernando Tatis Sr., De La Cruz is providing star-level production for a team with the fifth-best record in the National League. Sure, he will still appear on SportsCenter's top 10 list this season, but what has the Reds excited is his early appearance at the plate.

In 23 games, De La Cruz has a .313/.412/.651 slash line that adds up to the fourth-best OPS in the MLB at 1.063. Perhaps even more encouraging is that he managed to lower his strikeout rate and nearly double his walk rate while not sacrificing that game-changing combination of power and speed — and all of this came just months after his 22nd birthday.

“He is far superior to 99% of players his age who have the level of experience he has,” Reds coach David Bell said. “It's unbelievable what he does.

“He's going to develop for years to come, and for him to handle himself the way he does — with so much attention — we couldn't be happier. And what he does every day to get better.”

Rather than trying to change de la Cruz's approach to speed up the process, the club cited time and experience as his main needs and encouraged him to continue developing himself. They saw a player willing to learn and were not surprised when he reached out to Tatis Sr. Alone looking for some guidance.

Tatis has worked with players in the past, most notably reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., and his simple message is that De La Cruz credits him for his early production at the plate.

“Be in control,” De La Cruz said. “Control yourself. He gave me a lot of advice. I learned a lot from him.”

De La Cruz noted that he wanted to make the strike zone “a little smaller” for opposing pitchers, and to begin with, he halved his strikeout-to-walk ratio since his debut season.

“He worked hard this spring,” India said. “He wants to be consistent. He wants to be a star. He has that ability. We all see that.”

But for the Reds to finish the season where they want, they know it's about getting performance from the players around De La Cruz as well, something the organization has opened its portfolio to address this season while also leaning into the exciting play of their youngsters. Essential to sell to veterans when they come to Cincinnati.

“The whole city was on fire with this team. They play hard. It's fast, physical baseball. It was very clear that the city was falling in love with this team.” Reliever Brent Sutter said. “I told my wife…this was already No. 1 on the free agent list, and now it is Until now No. 1. This is a fun team. “It was very clear from the other side, that the bond just kept getting stronger and stronger there.”

Maintaining that cohesive feeling starts while integrating the veteran additions with De La Cruz's teammate on the left side of the pitch. The biggest wave of Cincinnati's winter came when Jimmer Candelario joined the Reds on a three-year, $45 million contract. The third baseman is a ready mentor on a young club as a former top prospect who has finally found his success in the past few seasons — and has made connecting with De La Cruz a priority.

“He loves to listen,” Candelario said. “He's a learner. You have to give him time. Playing every day in the big leagues will allow him to get better.”

This combination of needing time to mature while also relying on performing at the highest level is a common sentiment in a Reds club that features three players who finished in the top seven in NL Rookie of the Year voting a season ago — with Steer and Matt McLean joining De La Cruz.

“We're not afraid to make mistakes,” Steer said. “We will go out and play without fear.”

That mentality revitalized the franchise at the major league level a year ago, fueled the front office during the offseason, and if the player who embodies it most — Eli De La Cruz — could make the Reds pitch in October.