Midway through last season, Zac Gallen, the ace right-hander of the Arizona Diamondbacks, found himself surveying the baseball landscape. Everywhere he looked, terrific young players were remaking the game.
Julio Rodríguez, Seattle’s top prospect, had breathed life into the Mariners, turning a team that had not made the postseason since 2001 into a contender. Bobby Witt Jr. made the Kansas City Royals squad out of spring training despite being only 21. And, midway through the season, the Baltimore Orioles called up Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, who immediately turned his team’s fortunes around.
“Where do we get one of those guys?” Gallen asked a member of the Arizona front office. “They’re shopping at a different store.”
The response: Be patient. Our guy’s coming.
The Diamondbacks were not wrong. That August, Arizona called up outfielder Corbin Carroll. After showing promise in what amounted to an extended audition, Carroll, 22, has put the Diamondbacks on his shoulders this season. A similar story has played out in Cincinnati, where the infielder Elly De La Cruz injected so much talent and energy into the Reds that the team immediately began climbing in the standings.
Together, Carroll and De La Cruz offer a portrait of how much a transcendent young player can lift a previously moribund team. Their upstart squads will face off this weekend in a three-game series at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, in which both clubs are trying to shake off what has been a tough stretch coming out of the All-Star break.
Of course, a difficult week here and there could be a good thing for these phenoms — because, thus far, they have made things seem almost too easy.
In 115 plate appearances to wrap up 2022, Carroll batted .260 with an .830 on-base plus slugging percentage. This season, he has been nothing short of a revelation. He has batted a terrific .283 with an .891 O.P.S., and he was a starting outfielder for the National League in the All-Star Game. He is one of the fastest players in the majors and has stolen 28 bases. Despite being undersized — he is musclebound but wiry, standing under 6 feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds — he is also second on the team lead with 18 home runs. He is the favorite for the N.L.’s Rookie of the Year Award and will probably receive votes for the Most Valuable Player Award as well.
If his teammates harbored any doubts, especially after Carroll signed a $111 million extension in spring training, they don’t any longer.
“Very quickly you see the tools show up,” said first baseman Christian Walker, “and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’”
After losing 88 games last year — and a whopping 110 the year before — the Diamondbacks are a Carroll-powered contender, sitting at 54-42 through Wednesday.
For De La Cruz and the Reds, the timeline of their ascension has been even shorter. After watching De La Cruz develop into one of the most exciting and gifted players in baseball over the last two minor league seasons, Cincinnati called him up to the majors on June 6. At the time he arrived, Cincinnati was 27-33. Since then, with help from De La Cruz’s towering home runs and outrageous speed, the Reds have gone 24-13, putting them in contention for the N.L. Central title and one of the N.L.’s three wild-card spots in the playoffs.
Though Carroll and De La Cruz are a study in physical contrasts — the 6-foot-5 De La Cruz is every bit the outlier Carroll is, but on the opposite end of the spectrum — they possess remarkably similar skills. They are terrific defenders and are each other’s main competition for the title of the fastest man in baseball. They spray home runs to all fields, with De La Cruz succeeding from both sides of the plate as a switch hitter and Carroll showing uncanny power to the opposite field.
And they are, perhaps, worth more to their teams than numbers can capture.
Advanced statistics try to define their value, of course — De La Cruz was worth 0.6 wins above replacement in his first 35 games, according to Baseball Reference, while a half-season of Carroll has been worth 3.9 to Arizona — but there are unquantifiable factors for which numbers like that can’t account.
Earlier this month, when the Diamondbacks briefly worried they had lost Carroll to a long-term shoulder injury — the young outfielder was back in the lineup the next day — Manager Torey Lovullo ran through some doomsday scenarios in his mind. “You talk about replacing elite players — I don’t know if you can do it,” Lovullo said the next day, when the danger had passed. Similarly, the Reds had two mediocre months without De La Cruz. Adding him, according to the veteran first baseman Joey Votto, “changes the culture of the team.”
“Let’s say he’s added one WAR or something like that since he’s joined the league,” Votto said. “I don’t think it’s always just that. I don’t think it’s just plus-one whatever. I think there are some immeasurable things a player does when they join a team.”
Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen agrees.
“Even though I know everyone says in baseball that one player doesn’t have that big an impact on a team,” Hazen said, “I do think if you’re adding an elite player, it does.”
Dating back to his many years with the Red Sox, Hazen has seen plenty of terrific players get called up, including Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. Few have managed as unbent an upward trajectory as Carroll.
For his part, De La Cruz was putting on an incredible show every day in Class AAA before being summoned to the majors. Votto saw it firsthand while working his way back from shoulder surgery in the minors. At 39, and with 17 years in the majors, it’s hard to show the veteran first baseman something he hasn’t seen before.
“Stealing home the other day was basically something he did daily,” Votto said of De La Cruz. “It’s like, ‘Holy cow, he did that.’ Then the next day, ‘Holy cow, that’s new.’ It’s not going to stop.”
Still, the wunderkinds have things to prove. Carroll has yet to log a full season’s worth of games in the majors. De La Cruz has had even less time, and despite his production and his regular appearances on highlight reels, he is striking out at a prodigious pace. Their teams face a similar test of longevity. After zooming to division leads, both the Reds and the Diamondbacks have fallen back a bit in the standings.
That the Diamondbacks and the Reds are even in the postseason conversation, however, is a testament both to the impact of Carroll and De La Cruz, and also to how much talent has been built up around them. (Ask any Los Angeles Angels fan if you can win with only one or two transcendent stars.)
In addition to Carroll, Arizona has received strong performances from veterans like Gallen, Ketel Marte and Merrill Kelly. In Cincinnati, De La Cruz is part of an outlandish class of young talent that includes Spencer Steer, Andrew Abbott and Matt McLain. And that crop of young players was bolstered further this week when the team called up another top prospect, Christian Encarnacion-Strand.
If Carroll is named the N.L.’s top rookie, it is a safe bet that several Reds players will fill some of the slots behind him.
But to make the playoffs, both teams will need more. In a twist, both likely will be working off similar shopping lists. Each needs bullpen help and starting pitching. And, despite calling up their top prospects, both teams have strong enough farm systems that they should be able to make major upgrades.
The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, and other than the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, in which the playoff field was expanded, the Reds haven’t advanced to the postseason in a decade. Both teams are positioned to win now. And both have a good idea of who to thank for that.
“We just needed one more thing. We were that close,” Walker, 32, who last experienced the playoffs as a rookie, said of Carroll. “He was the tipping point.”