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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Yusniel Díaz

He hasn’t been a hot prospect since 2018. Is it time for Baltimore to pull the plug on the Yusniel Díaz experiment?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

Remember that famous after-credits scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Principal Rooney has been bundled off on the school bus in disgrace, the last credit rolls, and Matthew Broderick reemerges in a bathrobe, looks at the audience and goes, “You’re still here? It’s over! Go home. ... Go.”

It’s fitting that last Friday, Paul Folkemer unpacked Rylan Bannon’s time in the Orioles organization and handicapped—with significant pessimism—his chances of sticking around next year. Like Bannon, Yusniel Díaz is a guy who came to the Orioles from Los Angeles in 2018 in exchange for Manny Machado. And like Bannon, this once-hyped Dodgers prospect seems to be stuck in the Orioles farm system, unable to put it all together.

Last Wednesday, Fangraphs rolled out its 2022 Orioles prospect list, which included 45 players in the system and 25 more worth keeping an eye on. Not on that list, for the first time since he joined the organization: Yusniel Díaz. Mark Brown summed up: “It’s quite a fall for Diaz, but with his 2021 being plagued by injuries and poor performance, it would only be the echo of his long-ago prospect hype keeping him any higher on a list.” A sign, maybe, that it’s time for everybody to move on?

When Yusniel Díaz came to Baltimore in July 2018, he was joining an organization in crisis: the big-league team was being sold off for parts, the farm team was thin on talent, and the GM and manager wouldn’t last the year. But Díaz gave plenty of reasons to be excited about the future: back in 2015, the Dodgers had dropped $31 million between salary and a penalty fee to sign the young prospect. Still just 21, Díaz was scorching Double-A pitching (a .314 average and .905 OPS in 59 games with Tulsa), and was fresh off hitting two homers in the MLB Futures game.

Unfortunately for all, Yusniel Díaz did not take to Double-A Bowie like a fish to water: he only played 38 more games that season, hitting a weakly .239 with a .732 OPS.

It was the beginning of an unfortunate stretch where injuries (ankle, shoulder, hamstring, quad and toe) and the lost 2020 season limited Díaz to 150 games in three years. Still, there was hope: Díaz played just 85 games in 2019, but his slash line was solid: .265/.341/.464 with 11 homers for an .805 OPS. He was an invitee to the Orioles alternate site in 2020, though not yet on the 40-man roster. That fall, GM Mike Elias said he was “really close” to being ready. But unlike rising prospects like Ryan Mountcastle, Díaz didn’t get the call-up in 2020.

Coming into the 2021 season, it felt like a big year for Díaz. The gifted outfielder had a strong spring training, impressing Orioles coaches with his strong arm, diving catches, and oppo-field power. He was the most-voted candidate in Camden Chat’s 2021 Pre-Season contest to get the first call-up of the season. And even if Díaz didn’t get an immediate invite to join the team, he’d have a full season in Triple-A to show his stuff—entering 2021 Díaz still hadn’t played an inning of Triple-A ball—before getting the call.

Welp. Díaz was pulled from game play on May 9 with a hip/quad injury, placed on the IL soon after, and ended 2021 with a .161/.233/.265 slash line in just 65 games between Norfolk and a rehab stint in Bowie. He struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances, which playing hurt certainly didn’t help with. And most importantly, another year had passed, and still no call-up to the majors.

Fall ball in 2021 promised yet another rebound chance for Yusniel Díaz, but it was déjà vu all over again: he got off to a hot start with the AFL’s Mesa Solar Sox, flashing some major power, but was shut down with a shoulder injury after just seven games, finishing with a .222 batting average and .404 slugging.

It’s hard to guess where the Orioles are with Díaz right now. His potential is undisputed, and whenever he’s played in sustained stretches he’s impressed observers. Asked in the fall what’s keeping him from reaching the big leagues right now, he answered: “Being healthy.” The pop in the bat and his arm strength continue to make him interesting to the team, and at age 25, he’s not exactly ready to be put out to pasture.

On the other hand, time doesn’t exactly stand still in major league baseball. While Díaz languished on his journey to the majors, he got lapped by one-time prospects like Mountcastle (an outfielder once upon a time), Cedric Mullins, and Ryan McKenna. Kyle Stowers has already made it to Triple-A and Fangraphs predicts him and fellow OF Zach Watson to arrive in the majors in 2022.

Besides, there aren’t necessarily open spots in the current Orioles outfield. Nobody is dislodging Austin Hays or the Most Valuable Oriole of 2021 without a fight. Anthony Santander remains the presumptive third outfielder so long as he’s still with the team and healthy, with McKenna more than capable of adding defensive value as a fourth. Still, it’s conceivable that, if Díaz stays healthy down in Triple-A Norfolk and heats up at the plate early, he could get some playing time with Baltimore at the corners.

But that’s a big if, based on levels of production we haven’t seen since 2018. Díaz has hit just .225/.303/.385 since joining the Orioles’ organization. That won’t exactly earn him a call-up. So it goes without saying that he needs to have a big spring. If not, at some point, the injury history, lack of production, and the presence of other, younger outfield talent is going to push Yusniel Díaz out of the organization.

End-of-year prediction: Like his former teammate in the Dodgers organization, Rylan Bannon, it feels like this could be a make-or-break year for Yusniel Díaz. (Don’t we keep saying that every year, it feels like?) At least what we can say with confidence is that if Díaz doesn’t have a big spring, stay on the field, and show sustained offensive production in Triple-A to overcome the last three seasons, he will be getting the boot. I’ll go gloomy with this prediction: Díaz has the talent to stick in the majors, but not the track record. I predict he’ll finish 2022 in the minors, possibly with another organization.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon

Tomorrow: Kelvin Gutiérrez