De La Cruz delivers with homer, 4 hits in AFL

November 3rd, 2022

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Seeing a rain delay during the Arizona Fall League? Rare. Seeing a 6-foot-8 center fielder roam the outfield? An even rarer sight. Despite the odds, both instances took place during Surprise’s 12-4 win over Glendale at Camelback Ranch on Thursday.

Carlos De La Cruz did more than just show up with his mitt for the Saguaros. The Phillies prospect mashed his third homer on the fall circuit and added a trio of singles for his first four-hit pro outing since rookie ball in 2018 to help pace his club from the cleanup spot.

When Surprise stepped on the field for batting practice Thursday, a steady mist fell. Players took early hacks with their sweatshirt hoods up, attempting to stay warm amidst November baseball. When it came time for De La Cruz to cut it loose in game action, his first swing resulted in a rocket line-drive homer to left-center field in the second.

“I was just looking more [for] a pitch that he’d give me in the zone,” De La Cruz said. “A good pitch that I could handle and put a good swing on it.”

Those good swings failed to dissipate, even through the brief waiting period. De La Cruz laced a single to left in the third, before adding his second RBI of the contest with a knock to center in the fourth. He tied off the outing with an infield squibber in the fifth in which his legs propelled him to a hit more than his exit velocity.

Success has been far from linear for De La Cruz, an undrafted free agent out of New York City. He hit just .220 in his taste of affiliate ball with Single-A Lakeland in 2019 and then missed a year due to the COVID shutdown. The ‘21 season saw him compile just a .590 OPS across three levels. But things began to click this year. 

De La Cruz homered in his season debut with Jersey Shore on April 24, but he then entered something of a power malaise for a batter of his stature. After hitting just three homers in his first 45 games with a .380 slugging percentage, the 23-year-old found his groove from early July on with 14 roundtrippers in his last 57 contests (.552 SLG), which included a promotion to Double-A Reading. 

“It was just getting more confidence in myself,” De La Cruz said of his turnaround. “Trusting my hands, trusting my ability to play the game. I just go out there and play hard and see what happens afterwards.” 

About De La Cruz’s height -- he’s really 6-foot-9, a fact the 23-year-old was adamant about Thursday. Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was busy setting some pretty stories records in 2022, but he also holds the Major League mark for tallest player to start in center field at 6-foot-7. While the outfield has previously been all that De La Cruz has known as a pro, the Phillies have begun to explore whether he could be more at home at first base.

“It was a little bit easier for me since I got to play a little bit of infield before my pro ball career,” De La Cruz said. “But it’s a tough transition going from being back there to coming in here, you got to be focused. You’re getting plays that you really haven’t done in a while.”

De La Cruz hit between two of the game’s premier prospects, the Pirates' Nick Gonzales (MLB No. 93) and Henry Davis (MLB No. 19), the latter of whom was the first overall pick in the 2021 Draft. The ascension from not being selected in the 2017 Draft to a .302/.373/.547 slash in the premier prospect destination has been substantial.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” De La Cruz said. “I’m happy, I’m excited to be a part of this league. It’s been a good run, it’s been fun. But just keep working and hope for the best.”