How Elly De La Cruz and the Reds plan to contend this season

When Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz burst onto the scene a season ago, her every move became an instant highlight. He helped reinvigorate a fan base hungry for a winner by displaying a rare combination of power and speed while making Reds games must-see television.

After all, who else can lead the league in sprint speed, hit a ball 119.2 mph and throw it 97.9 mph across the infield?

But for all the sizzle that accompanied a debut season that propelled the Reds into playoff contention, De La Cruz’s final numbers — a .235/.300/.410 slash line — haven’t been up to par. the height of the hype and its score. The team finished two games short of the National League’s final playoff spot.

“We were just one game away last weekend,” second baseman Jonathan India said. “It stung us. We could have been the Diamondbacks. It stayed with me all offseason. I hate losing more than I love winning.”

This year, the goal in Cincinnati is to turn all that flash into results that will allow the Reds to play playoff baseball for the first time since 2020 — and that, of course, starts with their budding superstar.

“It definitely got more intense and livelier when we started winning,” outfielder Spencer Steer said. “It started with Elly getting called up and running away 12 times in a row. It just shows the city wants a winning baseball team. They deserve one. It’s been a long time.

After an offseason of hard work, which included time spent perfecting his hitting with former major leaguer Fernando Tatis Sr., De La Cruz is providing star-level production for a team with the fifth-best record in the NL. Sure, he’ll still be in the “SportsCenter” Top 10 this season, but what got the Reds excited was his first plate appearance.

In 23 games, De La Cruz has a slash line of .313/.412/.651 which is the fourth-best OPS in MLB at 1.063. Perhaps most encouraging is that he managed to reduce his strikeout rate and nearly double his walk rate without sacrificing that revolutionary combination of power and speed – and all of this happened just a few months later his 22nd birthday.

“Way, way ahead of probably 99 percent of players his age who have had the level of experience that he has,” Reds manager David Bell said. “It’s incredible what he does.

“He’s going to be developing for years and for him to perform the way he does – with a lot of attention – we couldn’t be happier. And what he’s doing every day to improve.”

Instead of 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 to be himself in his development. They saw a player eager to learn and weren’t surprised when he connected one-on-one with Tatis Sr. looking for advice.

Tatis has worked with players in the past, including reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., and it’s his simple message that De La Cruz credits for his early production at the plate.

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

De La Cruz indicated that he wanted to make the strike zone “a little smaller” for the opposing pitcher, and initially he cut his strikeout rate in half compared to his first season.

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

But for the Reds to finish the season where they want, they know it’s also about getting performance out of the players around De La Cruz, something the organization has opened its wallets to address this offseason while relying on the exciting play of their youngsters. core to sell veterans when arriving in Cincinnati.

“The whole city was on fire for this team. They play hard. It’s fast, physical baseball. It was very obvious that the city was falling in love with this team.” reliever Brent Suter said. “I told my wife… he was already No. 1 on my free agent list and now he’s from afar No. 1. It’s a fun team. It was very obvious on the other side, the bond was getting stronger and stronger there. »

Keeping that sense of cohesion while integrating veteran additions starts with De La Cruz’s running mate on the left side of the infield. The biggest boost of Cincinnati’s winter came when Jeimer Candelario joined the Reds on a three-year, $45 million deal. The third baseman is a ready-made mentor in a young clubhouse as a former top prospect who finally came into his own over the past few seasons — and has made connecting with De La Cruz a priority.

“He likes to listen,” Candelario said. “He’s a learner. We have to give him time. Playing every day in the big leagues will allow him to improve.”

That mix of needing time to mature while relying on him to perform at the highest level is a common feeling in a Reds clubhouse that features three players who finished in the top seven in Rookie of the Year voting from the NL a season ago – with Steer and Matt McLain joining De La Cruz.

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

That mindset energized 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 – Elly De La Cruz – produces, could play the Reds until October.

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