The Cleveland Indians spring training should be a boring one. Barring a catastrophe, the Tribe 25-man roster has only two open battles: the seventh bullpen arm, and a utility infielder. While you can make a case that the outfield is less than settled, there are a conglomerate of players who already have spots locked up, if not specific positions. Sure, Michael Brantley’s progress could provide an opening in left field temporarily, it will undoubtedly go to a guy who has already been there and done that.
In the sensible world of Major League Baseball, Yandy Diaz doesn’t have a chance in hell of making the Cleveland Indians 25-man roster heading into the 2017 season. While we can get into the semantics of how baseball works, it can be stated in one simple sentence: Yandy Diaz isn’t on the 40-man roster.1
While things are always a lot more complicated than they seem, there are still scenarios that remain fairly black and white regarding small market baseball. While the Indians blew the doors off of their salary structure this year by bloating their payroll to $120 million (or more, depending on how it all shakes out), they still have to maintain small-market stability for their future: Control when you can, protect when you believe in a guy, and don’t start the clock until you have to.2
Enter Yandy Diaz. What value does he bring to this 2017 Cleveland Indians team? He’s 25. He’s played almost a full season at each level from High-A through Triple-A. He can play the infield. He can play the outfield. He can hit. He makes good contact. At every level, Diaz has proven to be a multi-dimensional player who is good at more than one thing, both in the field and at the plate. While he feels like he could be a utility player, the question remains as to whether or not Diaz actually is being marketed as a utility player going forward in 2017, or are the Indians holding out until he can find regular time at one position. The real question that needs to be answered is what a utility player actually means to the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians have really begun to create a new definition for multi-use players, and Jose Ramirez really is the prototype. Sure, Terry Francona has tried out Mike Aviles and Michael Martinez in that role in previous years, but both were not suited for said role due to a variety of factors. Both Aviles and Martinez were veterans, but past that, what do they really offer? Aviles was declining as an infield defender, and was deplorable in the outfield. Martinez was a decent defender who might as well just point to the umpire and say, “intentional out, thank you.” JRam, on the other hand, is a good defender, and athletic enough to overcompensate for his lack of outfield experience with athleticism. He can hit, and he’s willing to play wherever they put him. He’s just good, and while he’s likely locked in at third base, they can move him at will, if the need arises.
In other words, JRam can hit, is athletic enough to play almost everywhere, and redefined his “utility role” as a 4-to-7-game-a-week duty, wherever they needed him, until they found him a full-time gig. See where I’m going with this?
What are the options for Yandy Diaz this spring? According to recent comments from Indians’ manager Terry Francona, his most likely option his Columbus. Past that, his best option for making the Indians is either as a utility player, or as a “temporary starter” should Brantley fail to make it back in April, or should Jason Kipnis’s shoulder injury prove more serious than initially thought.
In a recent piece by WFNY’s Mike Hattery, the case was made in which Erik Gonzalez should be the Indians’ primary utility player, based on the current construct of the 40-man roster.
Gonzalez has put in time at nearly every position on the diamond and has offensive skills that won’t hurt in the nine hole. Solid contact skills to complement a contact gifted lineup as well as the capacity to add base running value off the bench. Further, Gonzalez is average-to-above average offensively against right handed pitching, providing the Indians with another highly versatile, platoon advantage creating chess piece to use to rest starters or manipulate late in ball games.
All of these attributes fit the bill for what the Indians need in that 25th spot. Gonzalez is a competent baseball player, who can defend and has some upside offensively. While his skill set has been overblown for years, he is the epitome of what a utility player should be. When you factor in all the other underlying information, Gonzalez truly is the player that could “nail down the utility role.”
- He’s on the 40-man roster
- He’s already accrued time with the Indians after last year’s September call-ups
- As already mentioned, he can be competent, and has some upside
- He isn’t Michael Martinez
- He more-or-less fits that “all-defense” version of Francona’s 25th-man (as opposed to the ‘over-the-hill’ slugger…fun dichotomy)
So why talk about Yandy Diaz if Erik Gonzalez is a given for the utility spot? Because EGon reminds me of the 25-year old version of Michael Martinez. Hey, at least he’s 25, right?
It’s easy to say Gonzalez is a better fit for the 25th spot because he doesn’t ever figure to be a regular starter. He’s always been considered an elite defender in the infield3 The biggest curiosity regarding Gonzalez, however, is that he’s the better outfielder in a utility fashion. First off, do they need him in the outfield much, and in the end, what kind of outfield experience does he even have? Over his entire career as a professional, Gonzalez has played a whopping 32 games in the outfield. Diaz has played in 52, not to mention his time in the Venezuelan League, and perhaps some mystery outfield games as well. No, it’s not substantially more, but it’s more. Yandy’s arm is unquestionably better, and his best attribute is his athletic ability.
The question still remains regarding where a guy like Yandy Diaz would or should fit in? While there are a massive amount of Diaz commenters reporting on his inability to be a utility player based on “defensive improvement,” or how “he needs regular at bats,” many have yet to see him play. Sure, there is some hint that Diaz is being looked at as a full-time replacement in need of daily at bats, but there are equal hints that he’s absolutely being considered for a full-time utility role, a la Jose Ramirez before him. While writers and bloggers speak in definitives on this issue, there’s not one true way to know either side of the coin until that chance is given. Diaz has hit wherever he’s gone, but has always been a regular. If he’s truly the professional hitter he’s being made out to be, how many “regular” at bats does he need?
Jose Ramirez hit wherever he played. He also was always a regular prior to his big league career. Most considered him a utility player going forward. Why? Because he was short, didn’t hit a lot of home runs, nobody knew about him prior, and, well, we like to guess things. More importantly, we like to be right. The Indians’ brass always thought “regular at bats,” but you know, he didn’t look the part.
Diaz does appear to be behind the eight-ball regarding a Major League job coming out of spring training, whether it’s as a utility player or a starter. Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes asked this question regarding Yandy Diaz this past week.
“Defensively, he’s still a work in progress,” Francona said. “We even told him that last year, when we were thinking about September and possible guys who could help. He was transitioning to the outfield; because he wasn’t ready yet defensively, he couldn’t be in that conversation. Offensively, he was probably at the top of the list.”
When you combine that quote with this tidbit from Chris Assenheimer, you can see that Diaz isn’t on the fast-track.
“We told Naquin in his one-on-one meeting that there were spots open,” Francona said. “‘You’ve been kind of wanting to hear it, go do it.’ We didn’t tell those other guys that. I think they kind of fall into the group of younger guys trying to make a good first impression.
“Crazy things happen in this game, I get that, but I think we all feel like it would be in their best interest to play in Triple-A.”
That doesn’t mean Francona isn’t looking forward to watching the talented trio play this spring.
“Yeah, we’re really excited to see (them),” he said. “I hope five, six times, you guys are asking me after games how Zim swung the bat, or Greg Allen, because it’s fun watching them do something well. But you’ve got to be careful because, say they hit .500. Everybody wants to anoint them the next whatever. Or if they don’t get a hit … their season’s going to define who they are, when they’re ready.
“We try to learn as much as we can about them, but I think you can make really some bad mistakes, thinking you have the end-all be-all evaluation, ’cause it just isn’t the way it is.”
Let’s go back to that Paul Hoynes article for a moment, and two interesting points that Terry Francona made. First, Francona discusses where he’s playing. “He was transitioning to the outfield because he wasn’t yet ready defensively,” he said. Now, before I break that down, let me just mention a couple of other facts.
In August of 2014, the Carolina League managers were asked who the best players were at each respective position. Who did they pick?
High-A managers picked him, not random Baseball America guys. While one season is a small body of work, I’m not yet finished.
A year later, the Eastern League managers once again voted on the best players in the league in the same manner as the year prior in the Carolina League. Who did they pick as the best defensive third baseman?
No, he didn’t crack the list in 2016 during his initial stint in Triple-A, but he also split time between third, second, left field and right field, and started the year in Double-A. 2016 marked his first time spent in the outfield, since joining the Indians, and according to most, he was pretty good out there.
So it’s a statement of fact that Diaz is at least average at third, which sounds absurd when you consider that two sets of minor league managers would say he’s better than that. Third base isn’t even his natural position. Growing up in Cuba, Diaz played short and second, and was primarily a second baseman, which is still considered his best defensive position. He was moved to third out of need, and because he’s always had a plus arm. So Diaz can play third, and second, and has a history of playing short, and is now being moved to play some outfield as well. He played right and left here in the states, and had a dalliance in center field in the Venezuelan League this past winter. While playing short is likely a stretch, he wouldn’t have to play short as a utility player, because the Indians could move Ramirez there, putting Yandy in at third.
So I know what you’re thinking: Tito meant that Yandy is moving to the outfield full time, that’s why they didn’t bring him up last September!
In spring this year, with Tito pulling the strings, he’s played two games at third, three games in left and a game in right. For what it’s worth, Diaz is listed as an outfielder now, but it’s clear that they are prepping Diaz to be a utility player in is near future, or he wouldn’t be getting third base reps. And did you check out that picture of Diaz above? While he’s always been impressive physically because he’s 6-2 and 185 pounds, he’s clearly made some weight gains this year—and we aren’t talking the Bartolo-like weight gains. Diaz is clearly doing all the things you do to become a better baseball player. He is making himself available at all positions, living in the weight room, playing winter ball, and doing it all pretty damn well.
Offensively, Diaz is both a contact and an On-Base Machine. His career splits are .307/.403/.410, with a career 13.2 K-rate, and a 13.7 walk rate. Don’t blink twice. He’s walked more than he’s struck out in his career, and his walk rate is seven shades of elite4 What’s most impressive about those minor league splits are that they are all at the High-A or above level. His first minor league season came at age 22 in High-A Carolina, and minor league beatniks like myself immediately said, “he’s old for his age, so he better rake all the way through.”
Most minor league experts point to High-A as the level in which the rubber meets the road, and that true Major League caliber players branch off from career minor leaguers. The fact that Diaz has essentially been a star at all three levels gives you an idea of where he stands. And that’s not just offensively. You already saw what professional managers at perhaps the two most important levels of development, High-A and Double-A said about his defense at the hot corner. Remember, the defense that Tito was alluding to in his “improve your defense” comment was the outfield.
Erik Gonzalez does have more minor league experience than Diaz. He’s 23 days younger than Diaz, but has been in the system since he was 17 years old. He’s spent more than one season at every level past High-A, and the Indians haven’t rushed him through any level.
Don’t confuse his slow movement with the time they took to move Lindor through the system. Gonzalez has always been behind the Lindors (two years younger than Gonzalez) and the Ramírezes (one year younger). His career splits are .274/.316/.3955, with a 17.5 K-rate and a 5.2 walk rate ((Martinez had a career minor league K% of 13.6, and a BB% of 6.6%, which translated to a major league K% of 20, and a BB% of 5.5)). But I wonder how those OBP and Contact skills Diaz has been showcasing at every level will play out in the utility role? And if you’re worried about playing time, I wonder what happens when a player like Diaz showcases that bat control skill in the bigs, and has better defense than Tito thinks? Do you think that translates into more time? Ask José Ramírez how that worked out for him.
Diaz brings a bit of a mystery to the table. He’s the son of former Rangers farmhand Jorge Diaz, who defected from Cuba 20-years ago, without bringing his family. In a 2000 article, Jorge Diaz discussed his family left behind, including Yandy.
Diaz, who is not married, left behind his mother and father and 5-year-old son, Yandy. In fear of reprisal by the Cuban government or pro-Castro elements, he won’t talk about his hopes of brining them to the United States.
Yandy, who reportedly doesn’t have a relationship with his father, still followed in his Dad’s footsteps in every way, including his defection from his home country. But there lies the Yandy Mystery, as there’s no record for his development past his defection. He left Cuba somewhere after late 2010, but it’s believed he left in 20126, and spent time in the Dominican Republic, where he trained until he could find at big league team that was willing to sign him. After dalliances with Atlanta and Baltimore, he ultimately signed with the Indians in 2013. What happened from the time he left Cuba until he signed with the Indians? We won’t know until someone asks him the question, which I suspect will happen at some point after this article is published.
He’s publicly always offered to move positions, and like that interview from 2013, he’s always stated that he would do whatever it takes to help his club, and to give himself more value. While there are a couple of rumors circulating regarding where he wants to play, much can be lost in translation as Diaz doesn’t speak much English, and has had to use a fellow player to translate. He was even a curiosity to then Carolina Mudcats’ manager Scooter Tucker. During the Mudcats’ first home stand in 2014, Tucker told me that Diaz was “learning to play third base,” and that he was a “natural outfielder, so we’ll likely have some growing pains.”
Natural outfielder? Where in the hell did that come from? Even back then, Diaz told the press he was a shortstop and second baseman, and that his move to third was new, but still something he had done in Cuba. Tucker also noted that “on the offensive side of things, he’s as impressive as it gets, and a really hard worker so far,” which has followed him at every level.
It’s always hard to predict how any player ultimately performs at the big league level, and Diaz is no exception. As has been noted via Mike Hattery throughout this past offseason, contact is one of the few indicators that follows players as they progress through the system, and a piece of the puzzle that the Indians brass is clearly utilizing. This was noted by Dave Wallace, in a Hattery piece earlier this offseason. With a plus hit tool, a defensive skill set that is clearly better-than-advertised as an infielder, improvement daily as an outfielder, and a “really hard worker,” shouldn’t Diaz be in that utility conversation, if not leading it?
Diaz is likely lined up as the long-term starter for the Indians down the road, and should Brantley not be ready, that “long-term starter role” could come earlier than expected. But even if Brantley is healthy, Diaz gives the Indians a better chance to win baseball games in April as a utility player, and that option should be on table today, not tomorrow. Remember, any creative manager can find a way to get a player who’s offense is “at the top of the list” into baseball games, especially one of the top three managers in baseball like Terry Francona. He did it in 2016 with Jose Ramirez, and while it appears as though Ramirez has locked down third base, adding Diaz could give the Indians a “swiss army knife” approach that we’ve been discussing relentlessly.
Diaz could find time at potentially third, second, right and left on a regular basis, and has a history of playing short (in Cuba) and has tried out his hand in center, which he could play in a pinch. Before you laugh, remember, Mike Aviles and Michael Martinez have been trotted out there; so were Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana. Diaz has a history at every position mentioned, and—oh yeah—he can hit. Aviles was put in the outfield without much practice at it, and was bad. Chisenhall moved to right without barely any minor league time there, and is still out there. Ramirez played some outfield last year with barely any training, and while it was an adventure, his athleticism carried the day. Diaz has more time out there than Gonzalez—let’s not forget that.
Diaz is better, hands down, both as a starter, and as a short-term utility player. The fact that he’s not on the 40-man roster shouldn’t be a thing. Tim Cooney, Carlos Frias, Nick Goody, and Hoby Milner are also on the 40-man, and while bullpen and rotation depth is important, they have it without all those guys. Diaz doesn’t need every day at bats to be really good, and my best guess is that regardless of how he makes the team, he’ll earn regular at bats.
So while Erik Gonzalez has the edge in the utility discussion, that edge is based on one predicator: He’s on the 40-man roster. Diaz is better offensively, has played more games in the outfield, and his infield glove is more than suited to play the infield, especially with Jose Ramirez on the same team. He’s 25. He’s never not hit. He’ll continue to hit with five at bats a week, or 30 at bats a week, and he deserves a roster spot over the four guys I just mentioned. Give Yandy Diaz the ball, and run with it.
Who is Yandy Diaz?
He should be breaking camp with your Cleveland Indians to start the season, either as a starter for Michael Brantley while his recovering, or as an uber-utility player. Whether or not that happens is still in question, but you can carve it in stone that Diaz will be a factor in 2017 at the big league level, and on this roster as the summer progresses in Cleveland.
He’s just too good not to be.
- It’s equally important to note that Michael Martinez isn’t either. [↩]
- While the Indians utilized that clock process with Lindor, he’s still two-years younger than Yandy Diaz after 1 1/2 big league seasons under his belt. Diaz is 25, and if his clock starts this year, they’ll control him until he’s 32. “Starting the clock” shouldn’t be a Diaz issue, especially if he earns a spot. [↩]
- I have heard a conflicting report there when I covered the minors extensively, but the positive overwhelm the negative. [↩]
- His K-rate is pretty damn good as well. [↩]
- Michael Martinez’s splits are .268/.322/.376, and his major league splits are .197/.241/.266. [↩]
- I’ve read reports of him leaving in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. 2014 can’t be true, since the Indians signed him in 2013, so add to the mystery [↩]