Prior to the Jaime Garcia injury, the biggest news of Spring Training was Joe Strauss' reporting of the Cardinals' private workout with Aledmys Diaz, the highly touted international free agent shortstop who is expected to sign with an MLB team at any moment. The New York Yankees have emerged as the favorite to sign the 23-year-old Cuban which isn't much of a surprise to anyone.
However, I wanted to delve deeper and get more information on Diaz. Many people have had their opinions of him, but very few people have actually seen him firsthand. I normally dislike the "Have you seen him play?" argument put forth by scouts, but this is one of the few situations where I find it important. The Cuban baseball leagues are not what they used to be, and statistical translation can be an extremely tricky matter (best of luck to Dan Szymborski with his ZiPS projections on this one). Sure, the advancement of technology has allowed us to see many players without leaving the comfort of our own home, but videos of Diaz are few and far between.
We all know the statistics by now. He hit .308 in Serie Nacional de Beisbol in Cuba from 2008 through 2012. In his last season before he defected (2012), he hit 12 home runs in 270 at bats. That's impressive, but how will this production at the plate translate to Major League Baseball? What about his defense? Well, he committed 24 errors in 90 games played. He hasn't played much live baseball in over a year, so has he stayed in baseball shape? Has he improved his defense?
Diaz's agent, Jaime Torres, recently provided the media with this quote:
"We know he's going to be in the major leagues. It's only a matter of time. His preference is shortstop, but he's played second and third and I'm sure he would be comfortable playing whatever position is necessary."
Hmm, so Diaz is a super infielder capable of playing three very different infield positions at a major league level? Interesting. Of course Diaz's agent will hype up. That's his job: get his client paid. Thus, I wanted information from a third party with no stake in Diaz's future.
I turned to Joe Kehoskie. Kehoskie has been around baseball for nearly 30 years. He was a player agent from 1996 to 2011 and represented dozens of players from the U.S., Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. He now serves as a baseball consultant.
Here is what he had to say:
Viva El Birdos: Which level of the minor leagues does Cuban league baseball most closely compare to?
Joe Kehoskie: A decade ago I used to say that the Cuban National Series was comparable to a very strong Triple-A league, as it had dozens of potential ML players and the caliber of play was high. Now, after hundreds of defections, some retirements, and widespread overuse of Cuba's dwindling number of good pitchers, I'd say the National Series, on average, is no better than a High-A league. It's increasingly common for National Series games to not feature a single player who would be in demand by MLB teams.
VEB: We've all heard grumblings about Diaz's defense at short. What are his major problems? Range? Poor hands? Bad decision making? Arm?
JK: By current ML shortstop standards, Diaz probably has the arm to stay at short, but his glove and range were lacking in Cuba. I didn't see enough of Diaz to get a sense of his decision-making.
VEB: At the same time, we've heard great things about his bat. How projectable, in your opinion, is his bat to be a successful starter (disregarding the position) in the big leagues for many years?
JK: The hype on Diaz's bat seems overblown and is likely based on a misunderstanding or mistranslation of his stats in Cuba. At a glance, Diaz's offensive stats in Cuba look good, but the Cuban National Series hits over .300 as a whole, and the pitching in Cuba is now incredibly weak, with no more than a dozen ML-caliber arms left in a league with over 200 pitchers. Diaz would likely face more good pitchers in his first week in Double-A than he faced over his last year or two in Cuba.
VEB: What's he like on the base paths? Anything special to note?
JK: Diaz was an average to above-average runner when I saw him in Cuba, but he wasn't a big base-stealer. Over his last two seasons, he stole 12 bases and was caught stealing 4 times.
Cuba's catching is now even weaker than its pitching, but, without looking at the stats, I haven't noticed an uptick in SB attempts. Diaz probably had the speed to steal more bases in Cuba, but I'm not sure it would have translated to MLB anyway, given that the average ML catcher (and pitcher) is far better than his counterpart in Cuba.
VEB: Considering he moved to Mexico last year, what did he do to stay in baseball shape considering he wasn't playing any games?
JK: I have no firsthand knowledge of Diaz's training program or habits during the year he was ineligible to sign. I know he was in Mexico for at least some of that time, and I believe he played for, or at least worked out with, a Mexican winter league team. Diaz reportedly came to the U.S. several months ago, so I assume he's been engaging in normal baseball workouts in Florida or Arizona or some other warm-weather locale. As you know, Diaz has been holding workouts for ML teams, and I haven't seen any complaints regarding his current conditioning.
VEB: While following him, what were your thoughts on his overall makeup as a person, not just a player?
JK: I've never met Diaz and have no position on his makeup. If I was running an ML team, I'd consider his apparent willingness to engage in fraud to be a minor red flag, but MLB is chock full of players who have lied about their age, name, or both, and Diaz is by no means the first or worst such offender.
VEB: If you know of anything else you would like to elaborate on regarding Diaz, feel free to do so here:
JK: I haven't seen Diaz since he was in Cuba, but unless he's made big strides over the past year, I see him as a second baseman or possibly third baseman on a bad team or a utility guy on a good team. Defensively, he's not in the same class as Iglesias or Arruebarruena, and a move from short seems likely. Offensively, he projects as no more than an average bat (and even that might be optimistic), and I don't see him having the power to play third on a regular basis, at least not for a good team.
As for his ML ETA, the idea that he's ML-ready or near-ML-ready, as his agent and some media reports have suggested, seems highly dubious. Aside from the fact he's been away from organized baseball for almost 2 years, he'll see more good pitchers in a week in Double-A than he saw in his last year or two in Cuba. By the time Diaz made it to the National Series, the league and especially the pitching had been substantially weakened by defections, retirements, and injuries.
I thank Joe for taking the time to answer these questions about Diaz and Cuban baseball for me. He was a tremendous resource, and I will most definitely be in touch with him in the future. You can follow Joe on Twitter: @joe_kehoskie.
My Bottom Line:
I thoroughly enjoy the intrigue that surrounds Diaz. This is made obvious by the amount of tweets I have sent out about him, and the amount of people I have contacted looking for more information. After hearing from a firsthand account, it seems that Diaz better have made some significant improvements to his game over the past year for him to be worth the rumored $30 million. Can these improvements occur in a 23 year old? Can they occur without live game action? Like I said, I am intrigued.
However, if I'm Mozeliak, is my intrigue worth a $30 million investment? I don't know. Would I pay $20 million for him? Probably. Why? Because shortstop has been a hole for so long (nearly a decade), and despite the Peralta signing, they really don't have a long-term fix just yet. If Diaz has made the necessary improvements, $20 million will end up looking like an absolute "steal." Is $20 million enough to get a deal done? Not according to reports, but these same reports also had Diaz "for sure" signing a deal by the end of Saturday. That apparently didn't happen, so I guess we just have to wait and see how this plays out.