Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#6: Aledmys Diaz, SS/INF
Opening Day 2016 Age: 25
2015 Level: Double A Springfield, Triple A Memphis, Arizona Fall League
Relevant Numbers: 549 PAs, 17 HR, 36 2B, .240 ISO (Mem), .301 ISO (AFL), 10.3% BB, 8.6% K rate (both Mem)
So, what's so great about this guy?
When I first saw Aledmys Diaz swing a baseball bat, back in the early early spring of 2014, when his name first started really popping up in relation to the Cardinals, two words came to mind: fast hands.
Nearly two years later, having watched Diaz miss much of his first full season due to injury, struggle early and surge late in his second, and reclaim a spot on the 40 man roster with an absolutely monstrous trip through the Arizona Fall League, it's still those fast hands at the plate that make the biggest impression, for me, and point toward the kind of pop in the bat that could make Diaz a rarity among his peers in the middle of the diamond.
Diaz's 2015 season was interestingly bifurcated by his removal from the 40 man roster midseason, when the Cardinals outrighted him to make space as they attempted to cobble together a major league lineup in spite of a spate of injuries. It has been noted ad nauseum that Diaz hit much, much better after his removal than before, and more than a few prospect-watchers have gone for the immediate easy trope of the Wakeup Call, in the sense that all Diaz really needed was a stiff kick in the pants, and he got it in the form of losing his MLB roster spot. After that, he pulled his head out of his ass, did something something bootstraps, and became Aledmys, Destroyer of Worlds with the bat.
All of which, of course, is bullshit. Or mostly so, anyway. What mostly happened to make such a difference for Diaz was the simple fact he finally worked himself back into proper playing shape and got his timing back after a long layoff following his defection from Cuba. He had a difficult road to reach the U.S., and ended up going nearly two years without playing proper competitive ball before getting back on the field in 2014. He then suffered an injury, likely the result of that long layoff, suddenly going all-out at showcase events to try to find a deal, and not being 100% ready to go physically, and lost even more time. He was rounding into form just as the 40-man move happened, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a coincidence of timing, and I can tell you from talking to the one or two people in the Cards' player development wing who actually speak to me that the organisation as a whole was sweating bullets, hoping he would make it through without being claimed on waivers.
Which isn't to necessarily say the roster move had absolutely no effect on Diaz; I think the physical issues were by far the more meaningful changes, but it's not impossible to imagine him playing with a bit of an extra chip on his shoulder afterward, determined now not only to perform for himself, but with a little bit of desire to Prove Them Wrong. There are players who actually do use slights, perceived or real, as extra motivation to drive their moment-to-moment concentration. Diaz may or may not be one of those players; I honestly don't know enough about him to say for sure.
What I can say for sure is this: Aledmys Diaz can hit. Those fast hands translate into loud contact on a consistent basis, allowing him to drive the ball to all fields with authority. Nearly all of his over-the-fence power comes to the pull side, when he gets a pitch out in front of the plate and pulls it in the air, but he's capable of going from foul pole to foul pole when it comes to hard-hit line drives. Velocity doesn't phase him, either, from what I've been able to see of him, as the simple, effective load in his swing allows him to catch up to even high-octane stuff.
In the field, Diaz has good hands and an average arm, as well as decent range. Overall, he's a little short of what you want from a starting shortstop in the big leagues, if I'm being honest. All year, every time I've watched him, he's come across to me as a guy who will make his living either moving around the diamond in a utility role, or possibly settle in at second base, where the range+arm equation is a little less demanding. That being said, I don't think he would kill a team forced to start him at short; it's just not an ideal solution. He's seen a little time in left field here and there, as well, leading me to believe the Cardinals likely view his best long-term fit as a super utility player too.
The downside with Diaz looks something like this: the batspeed doesn't translate to the big leagues, as clubs are able to take advantage of his aggressiveness and use his tendency to try and pull the ball for power against him. The strikeouts stay moderate, but his groundball rate shoots through the roof, nerfing his power. The glove is just average at second or third, and he can't play shortstop at all. You're left with a tweener bat, with no really good position, who's incapable of making a real impact in any phase of the game. At that point, Diaz is just a garden-variety utility infielder, of the sort we've seen play the game all our lives, and is only occasionally lauded as a reasonable value signing by the Cards out of Cuba.
For my money, though, Diaz could, and should, be a much, much more dynamic player than that. When he reached Memphis late in the season, he looked like a hitter well and truly locked in at the plate, and Triple A pitchers approached him as such. They worked him with extreme caution, and to his great credit, Diaz refused to expand his zone whatsoever. The resulting numbers were startling. I don't expect him to run a 10%+ walk rate in the big leagues, nor a .200+ ISO, in all likelihood, but the fact he moved up to face the most advanced pitching this side of the big leagues and absolutely dominated was a real eye-opener. Diaz going on to beat up on the Arizona Fall League was icing on the cake, even if it's always appropriate to keep in mind the hitting environment in the greater Phoenix area.
The Cardinals' trade for Jedd Gyorko is interesting for Diaz, in that it greatly clouds his potential path to the big leagues. He and Gyorko are both right-handed hitters, and while I personally think Diaz could be a much better pure hitter in the majors than Gyorko, the power potential of the former Padre will almost certainly keep his bat in the lineup on a fairly regular basis. The fact Gyorko is also signed for the next four seasons is also curious, if the Cardinals as an organisation value Diaz and believe he could be a contributor in St. Louis anytime soon. He's 25 years old, and there are only two years left on the four-year contract Diaz signed with the Cardinals last spring, so the clock is ticking, to a certain extent.
To me, I think the best route for Diaz to the big leagues is as a super utility player; a right-handed quality hitting complement to the potential on-base excellence of the lefty-swinging Greg Garcia. But if I'm being honest, I can also say that if you handed me a crystal ball, pointed it to 2017 sometime, and showed me Aledmys Diaz starting at second base for the Cardinals, and Kolten Wong moved in a deal for a position of greater need, I wouldn't be completely shocked.
I would be surprised, yes. But shocked? No.
Player Comp: Interestingly, both names that come to mind for me first when speaking of Diaz are members of the Pittsburgh Pirates currently. The right-handed high-contact, somewhat above-average power hitting profile, combined with positional versatility, puts me in mind of Josh Harrison, whom I know I've brought up in relation to Diaz before. I'm hoping Diaz ultimately has more patience at the plate than Harrison, but there are definite similarities. The other name I don't believe I've invoked before is of the Pirates' currently-injured Korean wunderkind and brilliant investment, Jung-Ho Kang. Also somewhat interestingly, while he's physically smaller, Diaz's overall hitting profile isn't all that different from the Cardinals' current starting shortstop, Jhonny Peralta.