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All aboard the Yusniel Diaz hype train

The prospect has been knocking on the major league door for years. This feels like the year he finally knocks it down.

Atlanta Braves v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

He’s at it again. For the third spring training in a row, Yusniel Diaz is doing things that are getting the attention of Orioles fans. Could this finally be the year that he breaks out onto the major league scene.

Diaz, donning jersey number 23, kicked off his Grapefruit League campaign with a start in left field and a 1-for-2 performance at the plate, which included a long two-run home run.

This is nothing new for Diaz. He has been a springtime stud ever since joining the organization. The outfielder slashed .306/.316/.472 over 15 games in 2019 and then .300/.417/.500 over 10 games a year ago.

Those are the types of numbers that the Orioles were hoping for when they made Diaz the centerpiece of a 2018 trade package that sent Manny Machado to the World Series-bound Los Angeles Dodgers. It would just be nice to see them during the regular season.

Diaz, of course, has not made his big league debut yet. He struggled a bit with the transition to the new organization a few years ago, then battled injuries throughout 2019, and of course 2020 was a year with its own unique challenges.

All of this has prevented Diaz from playing an inning of Triple-A baseball, a step that the O’s may want him to take on his way to Baltimore

The oddity that was 2020 saw Diaz spend his summer in Bowie as part of the club’s alternate training site, but his chances of ever getting a big league call were virtually none since he was not yet on the 40-man roster. Despite this, Orioles general manager Mike Elias said last August that Diaz was “really close” to being ready for the show.

Diaz’s major league hopes were bound to get a boost over the winter. The Orioles had to add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him to the Rule 5 draft, where he would have been a top selection. The decision was easy.

But it’s not as if Diaz will just waltz into the team’s starting lineup. The outfield is crowded, and it’s unclear if Diaz would be an upgrade at any position as things stand. Ryan Mountcastle is a force at the plate, but will need continued reps in the field, Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays look likely to share center field, and Anthony Santander is coming off of a Gold Glove nomination and a breakout season offensively. There really isn’t any room for Diaz...for now.

That could—and likely will—change at some point this season. Rumblings of a Santander trade in January were just the beginning. Those rumors will only get louder if the right fielder returns to his 2020 form to start the upcoming season. Diaz is nearly two full years younger than Santander, possibly has more upside, and he will certainly be cheaper for the next few seasons. That’s a swap the Orioles make, provided that the trade return is reasonable. However, a trade is not essential for Diaz to make his way to Baltimore in the coming months.

With Renato Nunez gone, the O’s do not have an obvious DH. Instead, it seems the plan (for now) is to rotate players through the role. Although it’s easy enough to see a scenario where Mountcastle struggles with the glove and ends up settling in as the daily DH, perhaps spelling Trey Mancini at first base on occasion.

If that were to happen, the everyday left field job would likely be left to one of Mullins, Hays, DJ Stewart, or Pat Valaika. That would simplify things in the mind of Orioles decision-makers. Do they view Diaz as a better option than that quartet? It would seem the answer is “yes.” Not to mention, Stewart still has a minor league option and would be easy enough to demote if the club needed to make room.

Barring injuries to any mentioned party, this won’t settle itself by Opening Day. Diaz is ticketed for Triple-A regardless of how well he performs in the spring. That will buy some time for the Orioles to see what he can do at that level, allow things to shake out in Baltimore, and prevent Diaz from accumulating the 172 days on the 26-man roster he would need to earn a full year of service time.

Keep in mind, that overall expectations for Diaz at this point in his career are lower than what they were for Mountcastle a year ago, and much less than what we hope will come from the likes of Heston Kjerstad and Adley Rutschman down the road.

That said, Diaz is still projected as an everyday option in one of the corner outfield spots going forward with the potential to be a regular in the fifth or sixth spot in a major league order. If he can live up to that billing and Mountcastle returns to his form from a year ago, suddenly the future in Baltimore appears closer than ever before.