America’s Team? How Elly De La Cruz and the Reds are rocketing on to the MLB radar

Ten days is not a long time in baseball. A perfect 10 days doesn’t guarantee you’ll even get close the playoff hunt. A winless 10 days won’t necessarily keep you out. To watch the Cincinnati Reds, though, is to wonder whether 10 days can change everything.

It started on June 5, when the Reds beat the Milwaukee Brewers behind the debut of starting pitcher Andrew Abbott … and then summoned Elly De La Cruz to the big leagues for the next night’s game. The 21-year-old shortstop — switch-hitting and seemingly spring-loaded — is a consensus top five prospect in baseball thanks to an astounding combination of power and speed, along with rapid recent improvement in his plate discipline.

In his first game, De La Cruz smashed a 112 mph double for the Reds’ hardest-hit ball of the season. In his second game, he hit a home run to the outer limits of Great American Ball Park. In his fifth game, he sprinted from first, through a stop sign, all the way home in 11.48 seconds and declared himself “the fastest man in the world,” a claim Statcast promptly confirmed (at least if we’re talking about the baseball world).

By Wednesday night the Reds had swept the hapless Kansas City Royals to fresh earn their fifth straight win, Patrick Mahomes had asked De La Cruz to trade autographed memorabilia, and second baseman Jonathan India was on TV not verbally explaining why the Reds had dubbed themselves “America’s Team,” but exuding the sort of grinning confidence that makes it feel self-explanatory.

Heading into a series Friday night against the Houston Astros, the Reds are 8-2 in those last 10 games, and a respectable 16-13 since the May 15 call-up of Matt McLain, the other another top shortstop prospect. More importantly, they’re suddenly just one game out of first place months after Phil Castellini, the public face of the team ownership group, implied they had no chance.

That fun has succeeded in drawing eyes to something that has been brewing for far more than 10 days: A return to relevance, perhaps faster than expected. Here are five reasons to pay attention to the Reds’ rollicking turnaround.

1. Elly De La Cruz arrives with otherworldly talents

Let’s just let the highlights do the talking. His first homer was so loud the Reds broadcasters exclaimed, “Oh goodness! That ball had a family!” as it blazed over all but the last row of seats.

Pretty much any ball that doesn’t leave the park has the potential to turn into a triple. And on defense, he throws harder than any other infielder. The guy is a Statcast fever dream brought to life.

It’s not always going to be homers, steals and photoshoots for De La Cruz, whose batting line is a solid .235/.350/.412 after three straight hitless games followed six in a row with one. Yet it’s nearly impossible to come away from these first nine games without serious optimism.

The 6-foot-5 marvel is mostly playing third base as McLain mans shortstop, which is just the latest example of his willingness and capability to learn on the fly. Players with his length often struggle to make consistent contact, and De La Cruz is running a 69.4% contact rate that won’t set him up for batting titles. What they can (or must) do is master the strike zone so their swings come predominantly on strikes, where they can maximize damage.

Early on, De La Cruz is running a too-high 37.5% strikeout rate, but he’s also demonstrating the gains that bolstered his prospect stock from “enticing toolbox” to “potential superstar.” He has taken walks in 15% of his plate appearances, thanks to a selective eye at the plate that, with the continuous adjustments that helped lower his strikeout rate in each of the last two seasons, should ultimately serve him well as he sets what could be an extremely high level of performance.

2. There’s more young talent here, and still on the way

So McLain, the guy playing shortstop ahead of De La Cruz? He’s only 23 years old himself, a first-round pick in 2021 out of UCLA who torched the minors and, thus far, the majors too. He’s batting .328/.379/.516 in his first 28 games, good for a 136 OPS+. He was their No. 9 prospect coming into the season, per Baseball Prospectus.

Two other top prospects are already making contributions. Left-handed starter Andrew Abbott, who goes Friday night in Houston, has yet to allow a run in 11 2/3 major-league innings, wielding big strikeout stuff that also produces a few too many walks. Versatile infielder Spencer Steer debuted in 2022, and has nine homers and a 119 OPS in 66 games this season.

Steer came over from the Minnesota Twins organization during what looks like a tremendously savvy 2022 trade deadline for Reds GM Nick Krall. In a trade that sent mid-rotation starter Tyler Mahle to Minnesota, the Reds got both Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand, a corner infield prospect who is banging down the door to the big leagues. In 45 games at Triple-A so far, he is batting .354 with 17 homers.

All of this is beginning to create the best problem a baseball team can have: more talented players than positions. The Reds are one call-up away from having five good, young infielders: De La Cruz, McLain, Steer, Encarnacion-Strand and India, the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year and apparent team leader who slots in at second base, at least for now. That doesn’t even account for team legend Joey Votto, who is working his way back on a rehab assignment.

3. The Reds can really run

De La Cruz is certainly part of this, but the Reds have been successfully burning up the base paths all season.

Under the tutelage of Collin Cowgill, a former major leaguer who joined the coaching staff this season, the Reds are tied for second in MLB in stolen bases (with 70), and also rank second in overall baserunning value according to FanGraphs’ calculations.

Younger teams across baseball, including the Reds, are capitalizing on their athleticism with the new rules designed to boost the running game. That’s at least a piece of the equation — along with their ballpark’s hitter-friendly dimensions — that has the Reds creeping into the top 10 in runs per game.

4. A good bullpen can paper over a lot of weaknesses

Burgeoning teams with relatively small margins for error often have their immediate results hinge on the success or failure of their bullpens. So while hot-shot young hitters are leading the charge, the bullpen deserves a lot of credit for the team’s improving record.

Led by closer Alexis Diaz and a barrage of waiver claims and scrap pile pickups, the Reds bullpen ranks sixth in baseball in park-adjusted ERA-. Bullpen-fueled success can be fleeting, but the Reds are in position to be less reliant on Diaz and company as they work more prestige prospects to the majors.

5. A new day can dawn quickly, if the powers that be let it

In the muddled NL Central, the Reds are one game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and a half-game back of the second-place Milwaukee Brewers. They now have 8.4% playoff odds, per FanGraphs, after sitting below the 2% mark just a month ago. It wouldn’t be shocking if those odds increase further as more talent arrives in Cincinnati (and perhaps some veteran talent departs rosters in St. Louis and Chicago).

The recent burst of exciting wins has also stirred the fan base in ways that can’t be calculated to the decimal, brightening the sky over a classic baseball city that had been weighed down by Castellini’s cynicism and his not-so-veiled relocation threat in 2022. Now, Ken Rosenthal is asking about whether the Reds might buy at the trade deadline, and Krall is leaving that promising door open.

“There’s nothing I see that is going to impede us from making an acquisition,” Krall told The Athletic.

It’s hard to miss the sliding door parallels to the Oakland A’s, whose concurrent, improbable seven-game winning streak was cheered on by a reverse-boycotting crowd as team owner John Fisher executed the political maneuvers to move the team to Las Vegas with MLB’s apparent support, a glimpse at what happens when Castellini’s bluster is brought to grisly real-world fruition.

So what can 10 days do? Nothing, you might conclude from the bleak saga in Oakland. Or, alternatively, they can do everything that sports are supposed to do. Cincinnati’s veteran catcher Luke Maile, a native of the area who has been credited with popularizing the “America’s Team” bit in the clubhouse, seems to get that.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything,” he told The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans while explaining the team’s new moniker, “but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”