Elly De La Cruz Impresses in Cincinnati Debut

Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The prospect ranks are as high as an elephant’s eye at Castellini Farms. The Reds may have entered this rebuilding cycle with all the grace of an angry cat trying to get a cereal box off its head (as opposed to the awkward toe-dipping of the last go-around), but through trades and their own scouting, they’ve accumulated an impressive amount of talent in the minors. By our in-progress farm system rankings, only the Baltimore Orioles place higher for the 2023 season. Mean ol’ Grandpa ZiPS agrees; the Reds had seven prospects on the preseason ZiPS Top 100, a total that trailed only the Guardians and the O’s. Baltimore and Cincinnati combined seem to have about 80% of the shortstop prospects in baseball.

Whether you go by human or machine, no Red ranked more highly this winter than Elly De La Cruz, who was no. 6 (60 FV) on the prospect team’s Top 100 and no. 15 on the ZiPS list. After an impressive 2021 full-season debut, De La Cruz cranked things up a notch in 2022, hitting 28 homers and slugging .586 combined across High- and Double-A despite only being 20 years old. Questions still remain about his long-term defensive position, but his bat has proved to be even more potent for Triple-A Louisville, as he hit 12 home runs in a mere 38 games and is already two-thirds of the way to last year’s walk total. He’s responsible for the International League’s ERA going up by nearly half a run a game from 2022! OK, I made that last bit up, but you had to actually think about it for a full second before you smelled burning khaki.

In his big league debut (batting cleanup!), De La Cruz had opportunity to show off his ability to hit baseballs very, very hard. In the third inning, he crushed a high pitch from Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin as if he were channelling Lori Petty, sending the Cat Man’s fastball screaming into the outfield at a spicy 112 mph, resulting in a double for his first major league hit:

He put one more ball in play, a groundout to Miguel Vargas; the 109 mph worm-burner was hit hard enough that the camera work went right from the crack of the bat to the ball in Vargas’ glove. And lest you think his debut was only about raw power, he drew two of the three walks Gonsolin allowed on Tuesday night. Evan Phillips spoiled the fun later on, getting De La Cruz to strikeout looking with a sweeper on the bottom outside corner.

And yes, this was no more a fluke than his minor league numbers have been. De La Cruz’s time with the Louisville Bats featured an average exit velocity of 93.4 mph and a 55% hard-hit percentage by StatCast’s reckoning. Now, there are still areas where he can improve offensively — for example, his 69% contact rate in Triple-A was on the low side — but one must remember he’s still a 21-year-old player who has rocketed through the minors, with little time to hang around and consolidate his gains. He’s also playing as fast as advertised, and gives the Reds a good shot to have their first 30/30 player since Brandon Phillips in 2007. The other two Reds in that particular club are Barry Larkin and Eric Davis, who were also pretty good as you may recall. Especially with the league’s stolen base boom, a 40-40 season isn’t impossible as an upside scenario unless he really goes full Ellraiser.

As you might guess, the already sunny ZiPS projections for De La Cruz have gotten even sunnier after his extremely successful stint at the highest level in the minors. ZiPS translates his 2023 so far at .271/.340/.488, a nice little uptick from last year’s .276/.314/.448 (the 2023 translations takes changes in league offense in the minors into account):

ZiPS Projection – Elly De La Cruz (3B)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2024 .246 .310 .450 505 74 124 25 6 22 79 47 151 24 98 -1 2.0
2025 .252 .319 .468 523 81 132 26 6 25 85 51 148 24 105 -1 2.6
2026 .254 .324 .473 539 86 137 27 5 27 90 55 144 23 107 0 2.9
2027 .257 .329 .483 553 91 142 28 5 29 95 59 141 22 111 0 3.3
2028 .258 .332 .488 565 95 146 29 4 31 99 62 141 20 113 0 3.5
2029 .262 .337 .497 569 97 149 30 4 32 100 64 139 19 117 1 3.8

Repeating the methodology I used for the ZiPS Top 100 Prospects entering the season, this would move De La Cruz up to third in the prospect rankings, behind Corbin Carroll and Gunnar Henderson. These projections have Cruz at third, but his projections at short at nearly identical WAR-wise, so either is a reasonable possibility from the projection POV.

With Matt McLain, a ZiPS favorite, having a torrid debut himself, Cincy has already made two de facto “acquisitions” that may be as good as any that another team in the NL Central makes this year. And they’re not the only ones. The Reds cleared the way for Spencer Steer to get an extended shot in the majors from Opening Day and Andrew Abbott, a 2021 draft pick who was our no. 90 prospect before the season (no. 130 in ZiPS) had a huge start in the high minors. He earned a promotion and threw six scoreless innings (and nearly five hitless) in his debut.

In a division where the Cardinals have dug themselves a hole from which extrication may prove difficult, the Reds have higher playoff hopes than they have any right to at this point in the rebuild. Going into the season, ZiPS pegged them with a 2% chance of making the playoffs, with the assumption that the Reds wouldn’t be overly aggressive with their top prospects. But McLain was up by mid-May and De La Cruz has a great shot at grabbing an ironclad lock on at least the third base job before the All-Star Break. As of Wednesday morning, ZiPS has the Reds at 9% to make the playoffs — still a long shot, but about the odds of an Aaron Judge homer in any given plate appearance and nobody’s exactly shocked when that happens.

And De La Cruz isn’t the end of it. That vanquisher of William Van Landingham and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, is hitting .352/.408/.716 in Louisville; ZiPS projects that the Reds would hit 11% playoff odds if they simply made him the starting first baseman right now. Now, Joey Votto’s eventual return might spoil that possibility, but there are enough weak spots in the lineup that the Reds could get creative. And the team may need to. It’s shocking, but the lineup may actually have a talent crunch in the near future that will require some imaginative thinking to manage. Jonathan India has had a nice little bounce-back season so far, so the extra shortstop prospect(s) are unlikely to find a short-term home there, and DH isn’t a great option unless the Reds give Tyler Stephenson much more time behind the plate. And while Wil Myers is ripe for a DFAing after he returns, Jake Fraley and TJ Friedl have done more than was ever asked of them entering the season. Who would have thought the Reds would be plagued with the horrible malady of “too much awesomeness” this quickly?

The Reds’ tepid approach to contention in 2021 may have understandably sapped many a Cincy fan’s love for the team. Ownership certainly isn’t doing its best to win back that affection, but the Reds’ young talent may. The fans sure seemed to enjoy last night’s walk-off:

There are more compelling reasons to head over to Great American Ball Park than there appeared to be a year ago, and Elly De La Cruz is a big part of that.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

35 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
EonADS
8 months ago

At least one Ohio team is having some fun this year. Not the one I expected, but hey!

As per usual, it seems like they have the opposite problem from the Guardians; their pitching outside of Hunter Greene and Alexis Diaz (and surprise breakout Ben Lively) has been mediocre at best. And given how weird the NL Central has been this year, they could absolutely steal the division from the Brewers with a hot week or two.

The only real question I have with De La Cruz is if he can stick at short or if he’s destined for a corner. I’ve seen the scouting reports that like his projections, but what I’ve seen from him with the eye test looks questionable. Shades of Jhonny Peralta, though not quite that inconsistent.

Last edited 8 months ago by EonADS
Francoeursteinmember
8 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

From what I remember, Jhonny Peralta could pick it at short. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome.

EonADS
8 months ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Getting to the ball was never Peralta’s problem. His biggest issue was what he did once he had it. The number of times I saw him drop effortless balls and let crap go through his legs is too high. De La Cruz has all the athleticism he needs, but his actions are weirdly off.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

I have a ton of questions about EDLC on defense. I’m of the mind that his “floor” on defense will be a lot like Jonathan Villar, in the sense that he could play virtually any position badly enough that he isn’t a full-time solution anywhere. If he hits well enough, you can make that work.

Obviously, the best case scenario is that he gets better at defense and is able to play one of SS or 2B or 3B well, but he might be an outfielder, and maybe even a good one. The whole range of outcomes short of him being a 1B/DH are in play here.

EonADS
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I really, really doubt he’ll be 1B/DH only. I think the Villar comparison isn’t a bad one, but I don’t think he’s that awful. He’s not like Jurickson Profar who missed tons of time with injuries or Villar who honestly seems like a collection of baseball tools in a trenchcoat; EDLC has shown defensive improvement year over year in the minors. Maybe he’ll be a guy who can handle the corners and fake it elsewhere, but not like Villar.

Shirtless George Brett
8 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Yeah, ELDC being relegated to 1B/DH seems like a pretty large stretch (no pun intended). He may never be a good defender but it hard to believe a guy with 70 speed and a 70 arm he wont be able to play a passable 3B/Corner OF at least.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago

I think it is unlikely enough that I think it’s not worth considering, but the specific scenario you mentioned sounds a whole lot like Franchy Cordero.

Shirtless George Brett
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Except for the fact that Franchy was a 45FV and ELDC is a 60 FV. Also, Cordero wasnt moved to 1B because he was bad in the OF (not that he was good). he was moved because Boston had a bunch of OF and no 1B.

frankmember
8 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

SadT is saying that he won’t be a 1B/DH

EonADS
8 months ago
Reply to  frank

…oops? Misunderstood that bit.

votto erotica
8 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

“ The only real question I have with De La Cruz is if he can stick at short or if he’s destined for a corner. I’ve seen the scouting reports that like his projections, but what I’ve seen from him with the eye test looks questionable.”

I keep seeing occasional comments like this and have no idea what is meant. Outside of his first play being a tough ball over the bag at his secondary position, nothing about his plays at 3B or SS have been anything but the definition of routine. Balls gloved in stride, clean transfer, good throws to 1B.

The question for most who watch both regularly is where India will play if McLain moves to 2B in acquiescence to EDLC. After my hearing that CES was not a good 1B, the Reds’ Wednesday broadcast dropped the factoid that he has five defensive runs saved for LOU. He played 3B when I saw him in person at the Clippers game (also Wed) but didn’t get much action. If he and Votto are both promoted at some point, it really will put pressure on Bell to figure out where India, Steer and Stephenson are supposed to land every game.

EonADS
8 months ago
Reply to  votto erotica

As somebody who has watched him in the minors, EDLC has had a rough time at short. That he’s improved is good, and helps answer my question. But it isn’t a question from nowhere.