His prospect status took a hit, but a door is still ajar for Yusniel Diaz

It was a year when Orioles minor league outfielder Yusniel Diaz dealt with some injuries and saw his prospect rankings take a hit. But he ended the year hitting well and there is optimism that the key player acquired in the July 2018 Manny Machado deal could still become a key future player for the Orioles.

The 23-year-old Cuban-born Diaz was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers for $15.5 million in November 2015. A penalty doubled that and the Dodgers’ expenditure was $31 million for Diaz.

He was the centerpiece of their five-player swap for Machado on July 18, 2018. The deal sent Diaz to Baltimore along with infielder Rylan Bannon, pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop and infielder Breyvic Valera, who ended the 2019 season with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Diaz-Swings-Bowie-Orange-Sidebar.jpgThis year, Diaz was limited to 76 regular-season games. He dealt with a hamstring issue in April and a quad injury in August. But late in the season he began to make up for lost time. In 28 games after the All-Star break, Diaz hit .299/.356/.486 with two homers, 15 RBIs and an OPS of .842. For the year, he hit .262/.335/.472 and his wRC+ of 135 was 35 percent above league average. In the playoffs, he had some big hits for Bowie and in two series overall he hit .257 with two doubles, a triple, a homer and five RBIs.

He was one of the minor league staff members not retained for next year by the Orioles, but Keith Bodie spent the 2019 season as hitting coach at Bowie. Diaz gave him extensive credit for helping him get better as the year went on. It seemed to click between coach and player.

When I interviewed Bodie during the Eastern League playoffs, he said he saw in Diaz a player with plenty of talent but sometimes lacking in focus.

“He’s got to stay healthy and locked in,” Bodie told me during the Eastern League Championship Series. “He is easily distracted. Motivated when the moments challenge him. Some of the best games he played this year was with some electricity in the crowd. We went to Hartford, he was the best player on the field. He rises to the occasion.

“Sometimes he gets in a mode where it’s easy for him and he gets nonchalant. My personal opinion is he’s going to be a good major leaguer. We’ll see more of what he can do more consistently when he’s in the big leagues.”

Diaz was rated by Baseball America as the Dodgers’ No. 7 prospect at the end of 2016 and No. 6 at the end of 2017. After the 2018 season, the publication rated him No. 1 with the Orioles and No. 37 in the national top 100. Coming out of this year, he ranks as the O’s No. 4 and overall No. 75 in the Baseball America top 100. On MLBPipeline.com he is the O’s No. 5 but is not in the top 100 across baseball.

“His whole thing is his stride direction,” added Bodie. “When he starts to swing before his foot lands, he spins off the baseball. We are constantly working on his direction. With his leg kick, he can’t fall forward, he has to get to that pause. He gets to that pause and his leg kick is good, his direction is toward contact. When he pulls off the ball, the middle and outside of the plate is exposed. And we moved him closer to the plate. He has a tendency to stride away from the plate.”

Diaz hit two homers in the 2018 All-Star Futures Game, right before he was traded to Baltimore. Baseball America recently ranked him as the No. 14 prospect in the Eastern League.

When I asked Bodie what Diaz needs to do to get better and make the majors, the answer was familiar.

“He’s got to stay engaged in the game. Especially on defense,” Bodie said. “He’s got to get more absorbed into the situation of the game. Things that can’t be overlooked. Just focus. What pitcher is in the game and what to expect from him. On defense, expect the ball to be hit at him.”

I asked Bodie to project a year or a few years down the road. If Diaz makes the majors, is he more likely to hit better for average or for power?

“You know, almost everyone shows power today. Read into that what you want,” Bodie replied. “So, for me, it’s about contact. He does have good plate discipline. He can hit breaking balls that are supposed to be hit. When you get a hanger, you can’t miss it, and he has never seen a hanger he didn’t like. Which I like about him. He’s got bat speed, so what he has to continue to do is keep making contact. All he needs to do is run into the baseball and the rest will take care of itself.”

Diaz hit .306 and showed off his solid tools during spring training. He got his bat going late this year. Now he needs to stay healthy and do that more consistently in 2020. The chance for big league time is right there for the taking. He just has to focus, drive some baseballs and take it.

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