Reds' Elly De La Cruz headed to All-Star Game for first time

CINCINNATI — The superstar, or súper estrella, is an All-Star.

On Sunday, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz was named to the first All-Star team of his major league career, even if he was one of the only people not thinking about him making the team in his first full season in the big leagues.

“It feels great, but I’m also grateful,” said De La Cruz, who is the youngest Reds All-Star since Johnny Bench made the team in 1969. “I give thanks to God that he has given me all of these abilities to put everything out there. I’m just grateful that He has given me this opportunity to work my way up to what it is now.”

De La Cruz’s future as an All-Star hasn’t seemed in doubt since being called up last June, and there were even calls for him to participate in the mid-summer classic after a month in the big leagues in 2023. There’s even a very good argument that he deserved to be starting this year’s game over Trea Turner of the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the fan vote in MLB’s convoluted voting process that had Turner in a two-man final with injured Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts.

De La Cruz entered Sunday leading all NL shortstops in fWAR (4.1) and trailing only Betts in bWAR (4.1 for Betts to 3.2 for De La Cruz). He led all of baseball with 43 steals and all National League shortstops in runs (60) and triples (six) and was tied for most home runs by an NL shortstop with 15. He was fourth among NL shortstops in walks (42) and third in OPS (.813). And a recent trip to New York helped solidify his reputation as perhaps the most recognizable shortstop in the game, even with fewer than 200 big-league games under his belt.

“He should be starting,” said veteran Reds reliever Emilio Pagán. “No disrespect to Trea Turner, I think he’s one of the top 10-15 players in the game, but he hasn’t done it this year; he’s been hurt. I think Elly should be starting the All-Star Game.”

De La Cruz made an immediate impact last season when he was called up, but he also had a long stretch where he looked like the 21-year-old rookie that he was. From last year’s All-Star break through August, De La Cruz hit just .185/.250/.376 with 73 strikeouts and 14 walks.

De La Cruz’s statistics may not have shown his growth over the last month of the season, when he hit just .202/.311/.315, but cut down on his strikeouts, with 32 against 13 walks over the final 25 games.

But behind the scenes, Reds bench coach Freddie Benavides said he was impressed watching De La Cruz work through those struggles, then through the offseason and into spring training.

Brent Suter, a Cincinnati native who signed with his hometown team over the winter, knew about De La Cruz’s talent. When he got to Goodyear, Ariz., for spring training, he learned more about De La Cruz.

“I saw extreme talent, I saw a guy who looked like he was having fun out there,” Suter said. “Then I got to meet him this year, he’s been definitely all that stuff still, but he was way more mature. The way he set his routine has been so impressive. He’s a great teammate and (his) being accountable has been really impressive for such a young guy. He’s all the things that you’re hoping for in the makeup of a young phenom. He’s checking all the boxes for sure.”

Benavides has seen the improvements for De La Cruz from his approach at the plate, the results on his right-handed swing and to the way he practices, from doing whatever was asked of him to dialing into just what he needed to get better. Those changes, he said, are being seen in every aspect of De La Cruz’s game.

Like so many others, Benavides doesn’t see De La Cruz’s All-Star appearance as a one-off, but as the start of a streak.

“I think he’s grown up a lot — and he’s only 22 years old,” Benavides said. “You can tell he’s grown up a lot and he’s still learning and still asks a lot of questions. But you watch him and you just can’t take your eyes off of him — all facets of the game.”

The Reds are Pagán’s sixth different big-league team. He was a teammate of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Brandon Lowe when they made their first All-Star teams. He’s been teammates with Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien and Sonny Gray, among other multi-time All-Stars.

It’s not hard for Pagán to see De La Cruz being one of those guys that goes each year.

“You can go to the easy things like the approach, the routine, but I think something that gets overlooked is making the first one,” Pagán said. “Guys that I’ve been with that make their first All-Star Game, they come back and there’s a different type of confidence that they walk in the locker room with.”

That’s how it worked for Barry Larkin. The Hall of Famer made his first All-Star team in 1988 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. In all, he was selected 12 times and voted as a starter in five.

That first one, he said, made him think differently about himself. With an All-Star nod, he no longer saw himself as complementary to the great players around him, but as one of them.

“But that’s my personality,” Larkin said. “That’s not even close to the personality of Elly.”

Larkin points to a conversation he had with De La Cruz last season while he was still in the minor leagues and asked what De La Cruz would do “if he got called up.”

De La Cruz looked at the Hall of Famer like he was an idiot and said, “Not if, when.”

De La Cruz went on to tell him he’d played for Tigres de Licey in the Dominican Republic winter league. If he could do that, he felt pretty good about handling anything big-league baseball could throw his way. Larkin laughed, but didn’t disagree.

As much as anything Larkin said, the important thing is not the confidence that De La Cruz will gain from the All-Star Game, but what baseball could gain from putting one of its most exciting players on one of its biggest stages.

“Listen, the one thing about Elly is he’s a humble, outstanding young man, and I think there will be an appreciation when it does happen,” Larkin said. “But he knows he’s leading the league in stolen bases. He knows he is the reason people are coming to games. He can’t walk around the city. There’s no anonymity for the dude. He’s on a different level — this might have been more of a conversation for (Ken Griffey) Junior and I think Junior could fly under the radar — Elly’s just Elly. There’s a presence around him. It’s just different.”

Just this past week, Pagán watched De La Cruz not shrink in the shadow of Aaron Judge or Juan Soto at Yankee Stadium. It was a Cincinnati Reds player that so many fans came to see.

“Elly is probably the most marketable guy in the league,” Pagán said. “Once that brand of player gets on the national stage, the whole world is going to want to watch him more. So once you make one, that’s where the domino effect starts and you look up and hopefully 15 years from now, he’s played in 15 straight.”

That would sound like hyperbole for many, but not for De La Cruz.

“Everything about him — the talent, plus the process, plus the makeup, plus the kind of teammate he is,” Suter said, “I don’t want to say I’m expecting it, but it would not surprise me at all.”

(Photo: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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