Spring has sprung.
Long did I miss the days where I can roll out of bed, tighten my sweatpants, and strap in for three-plus hours of Orioles baseball. It ain’t much, but it’s honest work.
Unsurprisingly, the initial Orioles lineup of 2019 was as interesting as it was rejuvenating. Cedric Mullins, a potential 3 1⁄2-tool player that has produced at every level of professional baseball, batted leadoff and reached base in all three of his plate appearances. Chance Sisco, a supposed offensive catcher who recorded a 59 wRC+ his rookie season, slugged a mammoth three-run home run with a confident swing unlike any the year before.
At a time when development means more than wins, two players with roles to play in this rebuild have begun to set a tone. More importantly, so has Yusniel Diaz.
It’s pretty easy to understand why scouts have never questioned Diaz’s projectability as a hitter. There’s a consensus that Diaz’s floor remains relatively high, because his bat alone will eventually make him an everyday outfielder. As much as we’d like to believe that Diaz is capable of becoming the kind of hitter he was traded for, Manny Machado, such a revelation is unlikely. That isn’t to say that he can’t, however.
There is a reason the Orioles were willing to do business with the Dodgers. There is a reason why Diaz is currently viewed as the 52nd-best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline. Diaz is fluid through the hitting process, has lightning hands, and has a barrel that whips through the zone. A man can do anything—well, he can do a lot— if he has those.
The 22-year-old has maintained a plus offensive reputation despite his recent struggles. Prior to his acquisition by the O’s, Diaz was in the midst of a .314/.428/.477 slash at Double-A Tulsa, good for a 152 wRC+. Over his next 152 plate appearances at Bowie, Diaz managed a slash line of .239./329/.403 while his BABIP fell almost 100 percentage points. Though, changes were made.
According to Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun, Diaz fell victim to an inconsistent toe-tap he used for most of the 2018 season. Diaz STILL posted career highs in home runs (11) and OPS (.841) a season ago, though you can see he looked much stiffer at the plate in 2018 than he does now.
Granted, Diaz is such a natural hitter that he makes the toe-tap look prettier than most, but there was obviously more to be unearthed. Meoli even wrote that Orioles coaches of the before time recognized changes were going to have to be made. Now, Diaz has reintroduced a leg kick into his swing, putting him in a more comfortable space.
“I went back to how I started as a professional, but just very little adjustment. ... It is with my lower half, lifting my legs a little bit. I’ve always enjoyed that and liked that. That’s basically the minor adjustment I made.”
The leg kick makes sense, given the nature of success stories like Justin Turner and Josh Donaldson and many other big leaguers that fancy its use. As was noted before, Rule 5 pick Richie Martin adopted the same hitting style a season ago, helping lead to his breakout offensive campaign in 2018.
A positive change to an already established offensive foundation bodes well for Diaz, and should help to answer an important question regarding his future: just how good of a hitter will he be?
Well, we know that Diaz has great feel for his hands and how to maneuver his barrel through the zone with precision. His hands are also quick, which allows him to see the baseball a little bit longer. You take all that, add in a leg kick that theoretically puts him in a better position to hit (and with more power), and you begin to delude grandeur.
Those delusions came to fruition in his second plate appearance of the spring.
It’s one thing to poke that same pitch up the middle for a single, but to create enough leverage leaning over the plate and send a missile into the bleachers is another. That’s a special swing capable of special results.
Even so, it’s only been three games, and this game is scripted for failure. Diaz still has to prove he can hit major league pitching, and baseball is unparalleled in churning out those unwilling to meet its demands. But Diaz is capable of meeting those demands, and maybe even then some.
I have to admit, at the time of the Machado trade, I was among those who held a grudge against the now-defunct regime. I thought they should have gotten better players, and they should have traded Machado sooner in order to acquire better players. But maybe they got lucky acquiring the likes of Dean Kremer, who is poised to thrive under the watchful eye of a more progressive front office.
Along those lines, there should be a place for Zach Pop’s heavy mid-90s sinker, too, once he’s back to throwing it after an early spring misfire. Perhaps Rylan Bannon builds on his power-defense combo and becomes a serviceable big leaguer.
But it all comes down to Diaz, and he’s off to a good start.