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The Curious Case of Aledmys Diaz

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The Cardinals' acquisition of Jedd Gyorko shores up an area of real need for the club on the infield. However, there's an unintended consequence for one of the organisation's more intriguing prospects.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit, when news of the Jon Jay for Jedd Gyorko trade first hit, I was decidedly underwhelmed. Perhaps even a bit more negative than that, in fact. Not because I was particularly upset to see Jon Jay traded; in fact, I was quite glad to see the Cardinals finally taking some much-needed steps to clarify the waters in the outfield a bit. Rather, I was down on the deal because of the simple fact that Jedd Gyorko is, put simply, not a very good baseball player.

I liked Gyorko's bat back in 2010, when Gyorko served as a sort of template for the kind of bat-first second baseman the Cardinals would draft a year later, in the person of Kolten Wong. However, in the years since, Gyorko has largely failed to develop as an impact player, showing promise his rookie season of 2013, clubbing 23 home runs en route to a very nice wRC+ of 110, but cratering in 2014 due to what looks like very shaky command of the strike zone, or at least judgment on when to swing and when to just let a pitch go on by. His once moderate athleticism has declined as well in the intervening years, with a body that, hard as I'm sure he tries to maintain it, simply doesn't look anything like a middle infielder's, and defensive numbers that suggest the eye test is not wrong to a Jhonnian degree in this case.

With a bit of time to consider, however, I've come around on the deal, at least partially. I'm still fairly lukewarm on Jedd Gyorko the player overall, but if you look at him through a certain lens, he might be, could possibly be, a pretty useful player. The reason? Primarily the fact the Cardinal infield is overwhelmingly left-handed, with only Jhonny Peralta hitting from the right side among regular infield starters; Gyorko, as a potential fit primarily at second base, where it's looking more and more like Kolten Wong may be the sort of player one needs to find a platoon partner for, but also capable of manning third base to give Matt Carpenter some much-needed rest here and there, probably against port-siders as well, brings pop in a right-handed bat that is unique among Cardinal infield options.

Well...mostly unique. We'll get to that in a second.

The point being this: Matt Adams really shouldn't be taking at-bats against lefties, but he probably has Stephen Piscotty to partner up with, assuming the Redbirds do what must be done and SIGN JASON HEYWARD. Kolten Wong, however, has some pretty rough platoon splits of his own, and while Marp holds his own against same-handed pitching, if you're going to try and get him more days off (and you should), those days off might as well come opposing pitchers against whom he is merely quite good (107 wRC+ vs. lefties in 2015), rather than godlike (154 wRC+ vs righties). Three, maybe four starts a week by Gyorko against left-handed pitchers, who he has battered to the tune of a 120 wRC+, nearly 10% walk rate, and .181 ISO, spread between some combination of second base, third, and perhaps a cameo at first or short or somewhere else, even, should serve to more adequately rest some of the club's starters and, hopefully, prop up the offense to a certain degree.

Hell, an argument could be made for Wong and Gyorko to be strictly platooned at second, to take advantage of Gyorko's good numbers against lefties and Wong's somewhat shockingly large splits: 2015 wRC+ of 114 vs. RHP, just 52 vs. LHP. Wong hasn't been quite that bad overall in his career, but watching him try to hit lefties in 2015, at least, was flat-out brutal.

So I've come around on the idea of Gyorko's fit on the Cardinals. He'll still probably be a below-average defender, at best, at any and every position he might try to play, but that's not the end of the world. He very much fits into that mold of a player with a very limited skillset, but one that might possibly be exploited if used in the correct ways to create real production.

Of course, any time a situation like this comes up, I feel almost obligated to bring up the elephant in the room question of whether Mike Matheny is actually capable of utilising his players in any role more creative than, "Okay, this guy is my third baseman, which means his name goes next to the little '3B' on my scorecard." However, at a certain point, having this same conversation over and over essentially means you're having a different conversation than the one you mean to have. And, while I personally think it's entirely worthwhile to have the conversation of why the Cardinals feel justified in tethering themselves to a manager who appears both so limited and limiting, the organisation itself seems nearly 100% behind him, and so the conversation is probably very nearly moot. If Mike Matheny can figure out to simply make sure that any time 'LHP' appears on the opposing pitcher line, Jedd Gyorko should be starting somewhere that day, most likely at second base, then we may just have an intriguing situation setting up. If he can't, we can chalk up just one more marginal advantage lost to whatever unquantifiable, fuzzy logic benefit the organisation feels Matheny brings to the table that offsets all the tactical and strategic elements he so regularly fails when trying to engage.

However, there is one other element to this whole Jedd Gyorko pick up thing that I find really fascinating, and that's the situation of Aledmys Diaz.

That's right, I buried the lede 940 words deep. Suck it, brevity! You too, clarity! Eat a bowl of dicks, pitcher-plant story construction!

Anyhow, not that I'm done railing against the gods of good journalism and literary construction, let us on to Aledmys, shall we?

Aledmys Diaz, you may recall, is the Cuban defector the Cardinals signed to a four-year contract in spring training of 2014, for a remarkably low sum of money, after the rest of his market essentially dropped out of the running due to concerns over his future position, his offensive upside, and the effects a long layoff from playing in his early twenties may have had on his skills.

So here's the thing: Aledmys Diaz in Cuba was a shortstop by trade. He's played mostly shortstop in the US, as well. However, there is a consensus, not only among scouts but from the Cardinals as well, that his future is likely as a utility player. The club has moved to try and get him more time at alternate infield positions recently, as it seems they've decided his glove is a bit short at short for everyday shortwork, but he possesses the tools that could make him versatile across a wide range of positions. (For the record, I agree with that assessment, and have been saying so for awhile. He's not a great shortstop, but there are some real reasons to think he might very well be able to fit into that Ben Zobrist mold defensively.)

Here's the other thing: Aledmys Diaz was not, by and large, very good for much of his first two seasons as part of the Cardinal organisation. He hit pretty well in his first season, but an almost startling lack of patience at the plate put up some red flags (his Double A walk rate was 1.6%, in 125 plate appearances), and he hit the disabled list midseason with a leg injury that was perhaps unsurprising, given he was unable to play for an extended period while trying to get his visa and citizenship situations squared away. He began 2015 in a deep slump at the plate, and in fact played so poorly he was removed from the 40 man roster entirely midseason, and was not claimed off waivers by anyone. It was looking as if the Aledmys Diaz skeptics had had the right of it, and his skills simply weren't going to translate to pro ball in America.

However, around the time of his outrighting, things began to turn around for Diaz. I hesitate to subscribe to the 'wakeup call' narrative of being taken off the 40 man; rather, if pressed, I would hypothesise he simply began rounding into proper baseball form around the same time, the long fallow period of his defection and the injury that derailed his debut season finally properly in the rear view mirror. This was a player who needed time to get back into baseball-playing shape, and he finally got there right around the time things were maybe looking darkest.

For the rest of the season, Aledmys Diaz hit like a man possessed. He battered Double A pitching, pulling his season line all the way up to a .745 OPS and 108 wRC+, and then proceeded to lay waste to the Pacific Coast League upon his promotion to Triple A, to the tune of a 182 wRC+ and a 1.068 OPS. BABIP, you say? Well of course he was aided by that fickle bitch goddess; a .372 batting average on balls in play can go a long way toward making a line look good. However, he also walked more often than he struck out in AAA, 10.3% to 8.6%, and jammed a .240 ISO right up the collective backside of the PCL. BABIP or no BABIP, Aledmys Diaz came to Triple A to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and the Memphis concessionary was fresh out of bubblegum when he got there.

Diaz was sent to the Arizona Fall League following the season, and essentially continued right where he left off in Triple A, torching MiLB's finishing school for a 161 wRC+, a .986 OPS, and a stunning .301 isolated slugging percent.

In other words, by the time the 2015 season properly drew to a close, Aledmys Diaz had put himself squarely back on the map as far as Cardinal prospects are concerned. He isn't getting any younger, already being 25 years old, but the bat looks legit, and that positional versatility the Redbirds are trying to explore and others have forecasted could have him on the cusp of a major league job very soon.

The problem? Diaz's major league job, that of a right-handed hitting utility infielder who complements the lefty-heavy arrangement of hitters the big league club possesses, is also the same major league job the Cardinals just picked up Jedd Gyorko to fill. And, given the twin truths of Gyorko being under contract for four more seasons and Diaz being under contract for just two more years -- I believe Diaz is still under club control after that through six years of service time, but I won't swear to it; some of those contracts contain fuzzy language regarding when free agency is attained -- it sort of seems like the two players are at least somewhat redundant, does it not?

Now, I will say this: Diaz is capable of handling shortstop at a level Gyorko cannot; Aledmys is a little short of what you might want from an everyday SS glove, but would do in a pinch, while Gyorko is probably a step or two above Daniel Descalso at short, but what you're really doing penciling him in there is inserting a bat at a position he should be able to stand near without bursting into flames.

Which leads to two interesting possibilities for Aledmys Diaz. Three, actually, if you want to include the idea he could be trade bait, but at the moment I think his value is still too low compared to the level of intriguing his bat is to deal him just yet. One is that the Cardinals see him beginning the season in Triple A, hopefully mashing there, and then around midseason making it possible for them to perhaps deal either a Greg Garcia or, if he's looking like a comeback player of the year candidate, Gyorko himself, hoping to bring back something of good value, while sliding Diaz up the line to the big league utility role.

The other, I feel less likely, scenario, is that the Cardinals may now view Diaz as a possible starting option at shortstop over the medium- to long-term; that his offensive explosion the second half of the season has made the Redbirds think they might have a viable bat-first shortstop on their hands. I find this option more dubious, given the club's own comments and actions; John Mozeliak himself has commented in the past on his hopes that Diaz could learn other positions and expand his versatility, and while it's possible Johnny Mo does hope that, all the while penciling Aledmys in mentally as the Cards' Hanley Ramirez lite for the next half-decade, I tend to believe utility is exactly what the organisation wants from their Cuban investment.

It's also somewhat more difficult to see Diaz as a starting shortstop, considering the club already has a starting shortstop in the person of Jhonny Peralta, who is signed for two more seasons; coincidentally, the same two seasons Diaz is under contract. Obviously, it's possible to imagine Jhonny moving over to third base if Matt Carpenter headed across the diamond, but that would mean big changes have occurred on that side of the field. I've found, when considering roster machinations, that the greater the number of moving parts in your mental scenario, the less likely it is to be the actual scenario being considered by the people in charge. In the case of moving at least one and more likely two first base options off the roster to slide Marp across to a less arm-intensive position to slide Jhonny over to a less range-intensive position to bring up a Cuban shortstop with exactly half a season of great minor league hitting on his report card to take over the spot full-time, it would seem to me that's a full Nutcracker Suite worth of moves, and ergo quite unlikely to happen.

Occam's Razor would tell us the simple truth of Aledmys Diaz's seemingly now-blocked future is a simple matter of the Cardinals needing an upgrade now, and not being completely sold the turnaround they saw was real and sustainable, rather than a more modest turnaround and a run of hot luck. Perhaps the club still views Aledmys Diaz as a possible long-term fit in a super utility capacity, but weren't ready to bet 2016 on his being prepared to step into that role immediately.

Or, just maybe, they're thinking something different, that we don't see coming just yet. It's tough to say, really.

For now, though, what I feel we can quite definitively say is that the Cards' acquisition of Jedd Gyorko muddies the waters quite a bit for the future of Aledmys Diaz. I was working on the top 20 prospects list just the other day, trying to decide where to ultimately slot Diaz in, and my feeling at the time was he was banging on the door of the big leagues, ready to burst onto the scene with his plus contact abilities and surprising pop, and post a couple of Zobrist-lite seasons wearing the Birds on the Bat before becoming expensive and moving on to a club with a more permanent positional home for him. Today, though, I can't say I'm quite so sure of the future. Diaz's bat feels like it's very nearly MLB ready, but suddenly there appears to be a real dearth of opportunities for the young Cuban infielder to make his mark in St. Louis.

Hey, here's a Christmas song I've been listening to. It's really nice. See you guys, and gals, Sunday.