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Yusniel Diaz is ready to compete for a spot in the Orioles outfield

The centerpiece of the 2018 Manny Machado trade is nearing his arrival on the Orioles 40-man roster.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Orioles minor league system is headed in the right direction. General manager Mike Elias has updated the club’s methods of scouting and development. Throw in a couple of premium draft picks plus a renewed interest in foreign talent and you have the makings of a competitive, modern talent pipeline. But this rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats.

Yusniel Diaz came to the Orioles organization in July of 2018 as the cornerstone of the trade that landed Manny Machado with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Other notable names in that deal were Dean Kremer, Rylan Bannon and Zach Pop. Of that group, only Kremer has emerged in Baltimore while Bannon has had a cup of coffee in Triple-A and Pop has recovered from Tommy John surgery.

Meanwhile, Diaz has remained in almost the exact same spot in which he arrived. In 59 games with the Dodgers Double-A team in 2018, Diaz posted a 152 wRC+. In 76 games with Double-A Bowie in 2019, Diaz had a 135 wRC+ while also taking two extended trips to the injured list. For a player that was once considered a top 50 prospect in the entire sport, it is a little disappointing to not see his statistics take a noticeable leap forward yet.

That disappointment has been reflected in how he is viewed in the industry. Diaz is nowhere to be found in any “Top 100” lists anymore. But it’s not as if he has completely fallen off the map. MLB Pipeline still regards him as the O’s 8th-best prospect, while FanGraphs has him down at 14th.

This off-season represents an important moment in his career. Diaz is Rule 5 eligible for the first time in his career. That means the Orioles either need to add him to their 40-man roster prior to November 20, or they risk losing him to the Rule 5 draft on December 10.

A year ago, this decision would have seemed like a no-brainer (and it still might be), but the 2020 season made the Orioles outfield situation more competitive. Anthony Santander is now a Gold Glove finalist and arguably the best hitter on the team. D.J. Stewart had a streak where he couldn’t stop hitting home runs. Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins showed promise on both sides of the ball. They have to find ways to get Ryan Mountcastle’s bat in the lineup. And the organization is hopeful that Trey Mancini will be able to return from cancer treatments.

The cancellation of the 2020 minor league season meant that Diaz spent his entire summer in familiar surroundings, the O’s alternate site in Bowie. That alternate site is a black box for most of us in Birdland. Many of the players that spent time in both Baltimore and Bowie this summer (Kremer, Mullins, Stewart) seemed better for it. But for players like Diaz, we can only hope that improvements were made.

What we do know is that Diaz looked solid in spring training prior to everything being shut down. In 10 games he went 6-for-20 with two triples, four walks, seven strikeouts and two stolen bases.

That’s not to say he was in real contention of making the 2020 Opening Day roster. In August, Elias was quoted as saying that Diaz was “flying under the radar,” but a potential call-up would be hindered by his absence from the 40-man roster.

Had this past season gone down like a normal campaign, Diaz would have spent a significant amount of time in Triple-A Norfolk. It’s possible that a 40-man spot would have opened up for him. What’s more likely is that the O’s wanted as much long term flexibility as possibly, and Diaz didn’t need to be on the 40-man roster until this off-season.

Ultimately, it would make no sense for the Orioles to leave Diaz open to the Rule 5 draft. Although injuries and uneven play over the last year has dimmed his star a bit, he still has intriguing tools and is far enough in his development that several teams would be interested in adding him as a corner outfield option.

But Diaz won’t waltz into the Orioles starting lineup. As mentioned earlier, the team’s outfield is a bit crowded at the moment, and Elias will prefer to slow play Diaz and see how he performs in Norfolk prior to a promotion. At the same time, it will give opportunities to Hays, Stewart and Mullins to see if they can replicate some of their recent successes.

The Orioles likely have a reliable every day player in Diaz. Has he changed much since the public last saw him on a field in March? It’s unclear, but probably not. Even if he is the exact same player, that would mean the O’s have a guy with an above-average throwing arm and a bunch of other good but not great tools.

We will know a lot more about Diaz and his fate for 2021 by the time spring training rolls around. Can he compete with Stewart for playing time in left field? Did he make any improvements at Bowie? But first, he needs to be added to the team’s 40-man roster. That is something that is almost guaranteed to happen in the next three weeks.