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Orioles 2021 prospect preview: Yusniel Diaz

Diaz’s emergence with the Orioles has been long-awaited since he arrived in the Manny Machado trade. All signs, though, point to this being the year he makes his way to Baltimore.

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

Pretty much every Oriole fan knows the story by now. When Manny Machado was traded at the deadline in 2018 to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore got a collection of prospects in return.

The centerpiece, the surest bet to star in the major leagues someday, was outfielder Yusniel Diaz. Dean Kremer, who’s cracked the big leagues, was included in that return, but Diaz was the one for Orioles fans to look forward to and eagerly wait for.

Three years later, they’re still waiting. Diaz’s ascension through the Baltimore organization has been slower than hoped for, and now 24 years old, he has yet to play at a level higher than Double-A (though, granted, that might have changed last year).

Diaz’s time, however, may be at hand. There were thoughts that he could make the team coming out of spring training this winter, and despite a so-so performance in the Grapefruit League (.250 average, .786 OPS in 36 at-bats), his ability turned heads in March, and Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun implied at the end of March that Diaz could expect a call-up from Triple-A Norfolk once the Orioles got further into the season (the other outfielder he mentioned being in line for a promotion, Ryan McKenna, has already received it.)

So one of the questions facing the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect was when, as in “when will we see him?,” and the signs are pointing to that answer being at some point this season. He’s on the taxi squad for this current road trip, so he’s close.

The other question is how, as in “how will he do once he gets here?” And that’s murkier.

Since arriving from the Dodgers organization, Diaz hasn’t had the breakthrough minor league season that shows the promise that is to come, like high prospects Matt Wieters and Dylan Bundy did. He batted .285 in 97 Double-A games in 2018, but fared a lot better with the Dodgers’ Tulsa affiliate (.314, .905 OPS) than he did with Baltimore’s Bowie team (.239, .732 OPS).

In 2019, Diaz’s solid, if not spectacular returns continued. Playing primarily in Bowie again, he batted .262 with an .807 OPS in 76 games, continuing a perplexing trend that has seen his Double-A performance plateau over time, and even dip, despite adding more and more experience at the level. He was, though, second on the Baysox in home runs and third in RBI.

How Diaz performs this season at his next stop will say a lot, and answer questions about whether a season without minor league baseball hurt his development, or whether he was able to work on his game enough in the meantime to continue his progression. He was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and will likely start the season there, with the Orioles front office not just hoping for him to show signs he’s ready for a call-up, but expecting him to.

There’s still plenty of upside to Diaz, and plenty of reason to be excited to see him show what he can do. He was the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect in 2019, and while he has slid since then, a big reason for that has been the addition of high draft picks, including Grayson Rodriguez, Heston Kjerstad and No. 1 overall selection Adley Rutschman. He had an impressive showing in the 2018 Futures Game, belting two home runs, and his performances as a Dodgers prospect can’t be ignored.

Diaz projects as a solid hitter in Baltimore, and a multi-tooled outfielder. His plate discipline is good for a young player, and though he hasn’t showed himself to be much of a power threat, he still projects as a middle-of-the-order bat. He has a strong arm and appears suited for a corner outfield position, a spot that could see some competition with Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and Kjerstad in the mix, let alone Anthony Santander should he stick around.

It’s just up to Diaz to start cashing in on these “shoulds” and “mights.” The time is now for him to make his move, but fortunately for him, it looks like the team is going to give him that shot sooner rather than later.