Yimi Garcia’s brief tenure with the Marlins drew to a close Wednesday afternoon, as it was reported that he has been dealt to the Astros for outfield prospect Bryan De La Cruz and veteran right-hander Austin Pruitt. Garcia was dominant during the shortened 2020 season but saw his effectiveness wane this year, and with the Marlins out of the playoff chase he became an obvious trade candidate as a free agent at season’s end. The Astros were a logical match for such a deal, as they are in the thick of a contending window and are sorely lacking bullpen depth, even after Tuesday’s Kendall Graveman deal. In shipping out outfielder Bryan De La Cruz in exchange for Garcia, they were also able to deal from a strength—as they had a few different outfielders performing at a high level for their Triple-A squad in addition to the depth at the big league level—so the deal feels like a very sensible one on paper.
De La Cruz has been in the Houston organization since 2013, when he signed as an international free agent. Development was slow to start— it took him a couple of years to really get his feet under him at the rookie ball levels, and he was brought along very gradually as a result. He wouldn’t make his stateside debut until 2016 in the Appy League, but he showed potential upon arrival with a .250/.349/.467 slash, earning a late season promotion to the New York-Penn League. He’d struggle there, but did manage to maintain a solid strikeout rate against much older competition, which continued when returned to the level in 2017. In that return he managed a .325 OBP fueled by an impressive 13.6% K rate, but made a lot of incidental contact which limited his batting average and power output.
He’d receive some late season run at full-season levels down the stretch that season, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he really got established there. As a 21-year-old in the Midwest League, he hit .283/.348/.380, and while the numbers still weren’t exactly huge, he was starting to show more of an ability to impact the baseball without compromising at the plate. While fairly aggressive at the plate, his approach was showing progressive maturation, and despite the continued lack of power, the Astros felt comfortable enough with the quality of his at bats promote him to High-A Buies Creek. Impressively, his production actually improved at the higher level—in 182 PAs, he posted a .390 OBP and highly impressive 41/27 K/BB ratio.
While he was still posting sub-.100 ISOs, in these days De La Cruz had quite a bit of remaining power projection and evaluators were very impressed with his approach and contact skills compared to players the same age. He entered 2019 as a potential riser, and began to make good on some of that perceived potential. The Astros assigned him back to the High-A Carolina to open the season, but the stay would end up being a short one as De La Cruz posted the best offensive output of his career. In 41 games to start the year, he maintained his contact rate while more than doubling his ISO, ending in a .276/.339/.460 slash with 4 home runs. The run was fueled by his gradually improving barrel precision which could be seen in his improving batted ball profile. In between 2018 and 2019 in particular, he was able to sharply lower his infield fly ball rate, with the vastly improved surface numbers following. While not quite a full-on explosion, this was a big step in the right direction, and evaluators felt that there could still be a bit more in the tank with improved strength and quality of contact.
Cruz missile from new Marlins OF prospect Bryan De La Cruz pic.twitter.com/Nw3qB4UD8Z— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) July 28, 2021
The step forward prompted a swift promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi, where De La Cruz largely continued his torrid pace. The power numbers backed off a little bit against the higher quality pitching, but he handled the jump well overall and maintained a rock solid 20% strikeout rate. He finished his first taste of the upper minors with a .283/.340/.409 slash and 4 more bombs, and he entered the offseason as a ranked prospect in the organization with a reputation as one of its most polished hitters.
That momentum would be dashed by the COVID-19 shutdown, as despite the whirlwind nature of the season, there was never a role available for De La Cruz at the big league level. He did use the extra time to add some strength and got some positive reviews at the alternate site, but his status as a 23-year-old with no recent data and an under-the-radar career trajectory rendered him a bit of a forgotten man.
He would not, however, allow himself to be forgotten for long. As a member of the Sugar Land Skeeters inaugural season in affiliated ball this season, De La Cruz has been one of the stalwarts of a potent lineup, and has already posted a career high in home runs in the process. While his OBP and wRC+ are currently in his typical ranges at .362 and 112 respectively, he has already socked 12 bombs and was hitting .324 at the time of the trade with a career high ISO of .195.
While not a burner, De La Cruz is also a pretty good runner who draws good reviews for his defensive play in the outfield. He’s a bit of an outfield tweener with solid average arm strength and slightly above average speed, but his savvy makes him playable in right field, his primary position this year, and even center, where he has made a handful of starts as well.
At 24 years old with a righty bat and corner defensive fit, De La Cruz isn’t exactly your typical sexy prospect, but he’s a controllable, near-big league ready player with a bit of untapped potential still in the tank. Despite being a righty, he has a very smooth, malleable swing and nimble hands that allow him to cover the plate effortlessly, and he also shows very solid command of the strike zone. Over time, we’ve gradually seen him tune his approach to allow for more impactful contact, both by adjusting the swing itself and by swinging at fewer “pitcher’s pitches,” and it’s a trend that has the potential to continue into his big league career. Those changes have manifested in a 5% reduction in ground ball rate this year vs. 2019, and if that trend continues there’s more headroom for his offensive output. The power projection has improved to low double digit home runs territory with a chance to continue, and once established in the big leagues I expect we’ll see him return to a more patient approach to maximize his on-base ability, perhaps the best facet of his game.
De La Cruz has the look of a high probability depth outfielder with some versatility that should endear him to managers, and occasionally players of this type can have surprising offensive impact at peak. If nothing else, hopefully he’ll add some value off the field: