The Orioles lost out on signing Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa, who signed with Miami. He was the No. 1 ranked international amateur prospect. But they have another Cuban outfielder in their system in Yusniel Díaz, who was ranked as the No. 3 international prospect in 2015.
The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Díaz then, and he became a top 100 prospect on their watch. They traded him with four other players on July 18 in the deal for Manny Machado. The Dodgers paid $31 million to sign Díaz, getting him for $15.5 million and then paying that same amount in a penalty.
The native of Havana just turned 22 on Oct. 7. Díaz is ranked No. 44 on Baseball America’s year-end top 100 prospects list. He is No. 52 by MLBPipeline.com, which rates all five of his tools as major league average or better. Díaz gets a 55 hit-tool grade, which is above average, with 50 power, which is average, 55 for running, 55 for his arm and 55 for fielding.
Díaz did not produce strong stats after the trade to the Orioles. But when I talked this week with Double-A Bowie manager Gary Kendall, he remained very high on Díaz’s potential and really liked some tweaks the Orioles made to get Díaz to drive the ball with more consistent authority moving forward.
In 59 games for Double-A Tulsa before he was traded, Díaz hit .314/.428/.477 with a .905 OPS, along with six homers and 30 RBIs. Right before the Machado trade, Díaz hit two homers for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park. In 38 games with Bowie after the trade, he hit .239/.329/.403, with five homers and 15 RBIs.
“What I like about him is his athletic ability,” Kendall said. “Here’s a guy that possesses five tools, and sometimes he’ll show you different tools each night. He can steal a base and runs the bases well. He is a little on the aggressive side on the bases. He’s got arm strength and throws accurately to bases. We saw some power out of him, with more of that to come. He knows the strike zone and will take a walk. I see a lot of the ingredients of a good hitter. He showed us tools that can impact the game and help his team win.”
The Orioles also saw a player who often produced topspin and not enough backspin when driving the ball, costing him distance and carry and keeping well struck balls in the ballpark too often.
“There were things we saw in batting practice where the ball was not carrying and it didn’t have the correct spin,” Kendall said of his first few weeks managing Díaz. “When you first get a player, you don’t want to hit him with 15 different things. Some say, ‘Why would you try to fix what ain’t broke?’ So it was small changes. I think he took a good look at himself on video during instructs (the recent instructional league) and he didn’t like some of the things he saw. We saw him then really try to strive to get his hands to work differently to drive the ball more. Certainly, by what I saw at instructional league, I’m real excited to see him in the spring.”
Kendall saw some of the changes begin to take effect in Bowie, and more took hold during instructional league in Florida.
“There were things we saw there that we didn’t in Bowie,” he said. “A lot of it was getting to a heater on the inner half of the plate. His bat angle and bat positioning improved. He was previously pushing the ball to right field with his swing path. But he seemed to find some things in instructs, and I think the best is yet to come for him.
“A lot of it was his swing path and how he strided. This guy was really off the plate and sometimes lost the plate pushing forward. Our hitting coach (in Bowie), Keith Bodie, tried to get his direction a little better to the ball. Sometimes his contact was softer than it would have been with a better path to the ball.
“His hands were coming through the ball in a pattern where he never really hit behind the baseball to produce proper backspin and be able to drive the ball. Often, it had topspin and it didn’t carry. There were balls he hit some nights that should have gone out of the park, but didn’t. You’d see the ball die at the fence because it had too much topspin.”
So at times Díaz struggled, especially early on with Bowie. But Kendall also saw a player who, over time, came to trust his coaches. That included Bodie helping with his offense and former Oriole B.J. Surhoff with his defense. This process continued with minor league hitting coordinator Jeff Manto at instructional league. The trust that was built between Díaz and his new coaches should help him pick up right where he left off in the spring as he begins his first full year in the O’s organization.
Some scouts told me they saw nights when Díaz didn’t always hustle running out grounders to first. Kendall doesn’t dispute that, and said coaches had to stay on Díaz at times about the little things. But he also considers Díaz very coachable.
So the tools are there, even if the big stats were not in Bowie. No one is comparing Díaz in any way to Machado. But Kendall this week remembered a conversation he had about Manny years ago with O’s director of player development Brian Graham. Graham is currently handling the day-to-day oversight of the club’s baseball operations department after the ousters of Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter.
“Brian would say ‘Tools play.’ You keep working with them to refine and improve things and coach them. You just keep putting them out there, and a lot of this applies to Díaz,” Kendall said.