After the Cardinals signed Aledmys Diaz on Sunday, there was a lot of initial speculation about where the young Cuban might start his Cardinal career. The only thing definitive I saw reported from the beat writers was this tweet by Bernie Miklasz:
In announcing signing Cardinals say they anticipate Diaz will open season "at the high minor league level"— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) March 9, 2014
That news came out of the press conference to announce the signing, and likely means that the Cardinals aren't really sure where Diaz is going to be sent after spring training just yet. With that in mind, here's a look at the possible landing spots for him come April.
Extended Spring Training
I'm relatively sure that Diaz, who hasn't played in an organized game in 18 months (no word on his abilities at the sandlot) is probably going to get some seasoning by staying in Florida for a while after the big club heads north. He's on the 40 man roster, so up until that time Diaz will likely play as much as he possibly can in split squad and regular spring training games so the Cardinal brass can get a good look at him. Extended Spring Training allows them to continue to do this for a short time in April before making any decision about where he lands in the minors.
Palm Beach (A+)
The "high minors" quote from the club's brass would seem to intimate that Palm Beach is likely out as a destination, but this level is the most comparable level of play that we have to the Cuban Serie Nacional league that Diaz received his last plate appearances in before his defection. If assigned here, he would likely displace Alex Mejia and Ronny Gil at SS -- neither of whom are high on any boards as prospects. This would be a natural fit and one that would give Diaz a shot to start out with some success, something the Cardinals have done fairly well over the years when introducing amateur players to the minor leagues. One would assume that the club's first Cuban signing would be no different.
This is the most likely destination, in my opinion, and the reason is simple: They don't currently have anyone of note to play the short stop position. The holdover from 2013, Luis Mateo, is slated to be the starter at the present time but doesn't have prospect credentials and didn't hit enough last year to merit a starting job over someone with upside like Diaz has.
What's more, Hammon's Field has been fairly kind to hitters over the years and the Texas League has always been known as a hitter's haven especially for power hitting prospects, which Diaz clearly is. The proximity of Springfield to St. Louis will likely also play a role here as the front office likely wants to keep an eye on his development and being just a short drive away from the big club will help that considerably.
AA leagues are populated with many solid college arms and high upside young pitchers too, so the talent level Diaz would face in Springfield will be stout enough to test his abilities and give the player development staff a solid report on where he is skill wise and what he needs to work on.
I'd rate this as unlikely: The club has Greg Garcia penciled in at SS and the club still thinks higher of him than pretty much anyone besides myself. Pete Kozma looks likely to spend some time at Memphis as well in the early part of the season unless the Cardinals decide to carry 5 infielders to start the year. That would put a significant squeeze on playing time for Diaz, especially at the SS position, and that's not something the club would likely want to do. He needs playing time, not just to get settled in and adjusted to the strike zone and pitching, but also to give the Cardinals' player development staff a look at where he is functionally so that we can see what we have here. Obviously they think highly enough of him to offer him 8 million clams to come play for them, but I still think there's a lot of questions surrounding his talent level and whether he can put it all together stateside. The only solution for this is playing time and he can't get that at Memphis with the current roster construction there.
Just my two cents on Diaz:
I think it's a pretty damn good signing considering what the other Cuban defectors have gotten from various clubs this offseason. He's got more questions than most (can he stick at SS? Is the bat good enough to transition to another position?) and that's likely what drove down his price enough for the Cardinals to be able to sign him for just $8M over 4 years. Still, it's hard to come up with a better gamble that the club could make with those funds: It's a position of need, spending is constrained in most other avenues of player acquisition, and the upside is at least a solid regular at a premium position in the big leagues -- that's a 2-4 WAR player. Diaz doesn't have the high floor you'd like to see, but I think the tradeoff is possible All-Star upside, and that's something that's hard to come by in the middle infield. The Cardinals know this better than anyone.
The scouts that Joe interviewed last month both seemed to think that he was good enough to play in the big leagues, just not at an all-star level. More likely a regular on a bad team or a utility infielder on a good one, which is nothing to sneeze at for the cost: Considering what a marginal win costs on the free agent market, if Diaz can play at all he's likely to at least be worth 1.5 WAR over four seasons, even in a utility role, and the Cardinals will retain control of his rights for two more years after this contract ends. Unless Diaz is a complete bust and can't play at all (something that seems pretty unlikely given the reports on his skill level and makeup) he's likely to be worth $8M in free agent dollars pretty easily and will likely provide some surplus value on top of that.
And yes, I still think we're all giving Greg Garcia the short end of the stick by fawning over other players all the time while he keeps cranking out quality minor league seasons every year. But that's my cross to bear I suppose...