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Orioles prospect season in review: Yusniel Diaz

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The top prospect the O’s received in their July trades, Diaz is the lynchpin of the Orioles’ rebuilding effort.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Camden Chat’s tour through Orioles prospects over the last few weeks has finally landed us here: Yusniel Diaz, the club’s top-rated prospect on MLB Pipeline.

For better or for worse, the young outfielder — who will turn 22 in four days — is the face of the Orioles’ rebuilding process. He was the shining, glimmering prize of the Orioles’ flurry of sell-off trades in July, the only consensus top-100 prospect of the 15 young players the O’s received.

Years from now, when we evaluate whether the Orioles’ 2018 fire sale was successful, it may well hinge on whether Diaz lived up to his potential. NO PRESSURE, YUSNIEL.

Diaz was the headliner of the five-player package the O’s received from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade on July 18. (Stacey wrote about the other four minor leaguers in that deal last month.) Reportedly, the Dodgers’ willingness to include Diaz in the trade is what tipped the scales in their favor over the Brewers and Phillies, who were both aggressive in the Machado sweepstakes but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer a prospect of Diaz’s caliber.

Diaz was at peak value at the time of the trade. Not only was he batting .314/.428/.477 in Double-A, but just three days before the deal, he made his presence known to a national audience by crushing two home runs in the All-Star Futures Game. After the trade, Diaz immediately slotted in as the Orioles’ best prospect, and currently ranks No. 53 overall on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list.

But first, let’s review how he got there. The Dodgers paid a hefty sum to sign Diaz, a highly touted Cuban defector, in Nov. 2015. They gave him a $15.5 million signing bonus and had to pay another $15.5 million in penalty tax for doing so. After spending most of his first two professional seasons at High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Diaz advanced to Double-A Tulsa in Aug. 2017 and excelled, posting a .333/.390/.491 batting line in 31 games at age 20.

In a return engagement at Tulsa this season, Diaz laid waste to Texas League pitching. His .905 OPS in 59 games was boosted not only by his line-drive swing and hit-to-all-fields approach, but also his improvements in plate discipline. Diaz had more walks (41) than strikeouts (39) for Tulsa this season, offering an enticing on-base ability for an Orioles’ system that is distressingly low on such players.

Spoiler alert: that on-base ability did not hold up once Diaz found his way into the Orioles’ organization. In fact, all his offensive numbers dipped precariously after the O’s assigned him to Double-A Bowie. In 38 games for the Baysox, he batted .239/.329/.403, with his OPS dipping over 170 points from .905 to .732.

So what happened? Is Diaz suddenly a bust? Is it time for Orioles fans to panic and run around in circles, arms flailing?

Of course not. Slow your roll. For starters, it’s a small sample size. Also consider that the Eastern League is tougher on hitters than the Texas League, so his stats were bound to decline somewhat. Plus, Diaz likely needed some time to get adjusted to his new environment and new coaching staff. After going 5-for-35 in his first 10 games with Bowie, Diaz heated up, batting .273/.357/.465 with four homers and 14 RBIs in his last 28 games.

There’s a lot to like with Diaz, as you might expect for a top-100 prospect. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen wrote that Diaz “could be a premium contact/on-base hitter,” describing him as “an all-fields line-drive hitter who keeps his hands inside the ball and peppers the right-center-field gap.” MLB Pipeline writes, “He makes consistent barreled contact, driving the ball with authority to all fields, with enough bat speed and strength to provide 12-15 (home runs) per season.”

Those power numbers may seem a bit light, and indeed, Diaz — despite his Futures Game display — is not a big home run guy. He hasn’t more than 11 in any full professional season. Still, he has the potential to add a bit more slugging to his game. The MLB Pipeline write-up notes that Diaz “has begun to show more pop after toning down his setup and incorporating his lower half more in his right-handed swing.”

On defense, Diaz’s professional starts have been almost evenly split between right field (119) and center field (103). He’s thought to be more of a corner guy long term, though, because he doesn’t quite have the speed for center. The Orioles may agree, considering that Diaz started 29 games in right compared to six in center for Bowie.

Diaz seems like a safe bet to at least be a regular in the majors, but experts disagree about his ultimate upside. Longenhagen writes, “He’s very likely to hit and therefore is very likely to be a big-league contributor, but he looks more like a solid-average regular than a potential star.” MLB.com’s Mike Rosenbaum is more optimistic, saying, “Diaz possesses the across-the-board tools needed to become an impactful big league regular for the Orioles in the coming years --- perhaps even an All-Star if he can add more power to his game.”

Diaz’s ETA in Baltimore is 2019, and while he’s part of a crowded group of O’s outfield prospects — including Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna and the already-arrived Cedric Mullins — Diaz might have the highest ceiling of the bunch. Even if he doesn’t break out as a superstar, though, he profiles similarly to a right-handed Nick Markakis. And getting at least six Markakis-like years out of Diaz (without even getting into the other four players from the trade) wouldn’t be too shabby a return for Machado, who was on his way out of Baltimore anyway.

A new era of Orioles baseball is upon us. Before long, Diaz could be the man leading the charge.