There’s not a lot of question marks surrounding the Cleveland Indians this spring, so the murmurs of interest have focused on various prospects.
It could be wondering if Ryan Merritt would be a viable major league starter, or the amazing power displays Bradley Zimmer has put on. But one of the loudest conversations has been around Yandy Diaz, the 24-year old Cuban ex-pat that exploded on the scene last year.
Between Double-A and Triple-A, Diaz hit .318/.408/.446 in a span of 121 games, and had a 28-game hitting streak at one point. He’s come from nowhere to be a be a potential impact bat down the line and now people wonder if he has a shot to make the big league club. He’s a little late to the game as far as breakouts go, but that’s how baseball works. In looking at his minors numbers though, and his potential defensive assignments (and woes), I realized something.
Yandy Diaz is the second coming of Edgar Martinez.
Bold? Hell yes. One might even consider it a bizarrely outlandish statement. Stephen A. Smith would probably call me a blasphemer, or would if ESPN paid attention to baseball.
Edgar Martinez is one of the best hitters ever. He should be the first primarily designated hitter to get into the Hall of Fame, despite David Ortiz’s heroic exploits. Martinez could hit anything. He did play almost 600 games in the field, but he’s known as a DH. That’s one of the knocks on Diaz, though, and why this silly argument dovetails so nicely. Diaz’s glove simply isn’t major league ready. Terry Francona praised him for zone control, but the glove remains an issue. He could probably make the team if he could do anything besides hit, especially with the logjam at DH/1B. He's allegedly a third baseman, but after the Lonnie Chisenhall Adventure I'm pretty much done with alleged third basemen.
But this is about bats. Martinez had a bat. A really good one. A fantastic one even. Recent developments suggest Diaz has one, too.
Martinez was a bit of a late bloomer for a future Hall of Famer. Much like his teammate Randy Johnson, he didn't really get it going until he was 27. Before that he'd seen major league action, but a grand total of 92 games over three years. He wasn't that effective either, owning a combined .702 OPS and striking out more than he walked. This is a normal thing for most baseball players, but Martinez did end his career with 80 more walks than strikeouts. He had incredible zone command. Once he broke out though, it was absurd as well as unconventional. It would be hard to call Martinez a real power hitter, even if he slugged over .500 pretty much every year and topped out at .672 in 1995. He just hit so many doubles and never hit 30 home runs. That doesn't mean much, he just didn't hit a certain hallmark. And doubles are more fun anyway. Martinez was more pf a “pure hitter’, whatever that means, basically spraying the ball everywhere with authority. Not quite a top-flight slugger, but a half step below.
In the minors Martinez never flashed much power, just general hitting skill. He slugged .473 as a 24-year old, lacing 31 doubles but a mere 10 home runs. It wasn’t until a year later he made Mariners decision makers’ jobs difficult, mashing to the tune of .363/.467/.517 with a 40/66 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course, the year prior when he was simply very good, he K’d only 48 times compared to 82 walks. He forced his way onto the Mariners. It wasn’t a normal arc for future superstars, but it was Martinez’s path and it worked.
In his breakout season last year, (minor league breakout, but he still emerged as a viable prospect) this is what Diaz did. On his way to hitting .318/.406/.446, he only popped nine home runs but smacked with 22 doubles. He also stole 11 bases on 14 attempts, but that's not hitting. We're talking hitting.
Diaz has always hit in some way or another throughout his minors and international career. He’s been walking too, a 70/78 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015 between Double-A and Triple-A, then 86/71 in 2016 also over two levels. Even in Cuba as a teenager he slashed .316/.428/.418 and walked way more than is normal for a teenager with a better than 1/1 ratio in favor of walks. It's weird to look at that batting line and not have it be wrong, but the guy has always gotten on base. Maybe not in the same mad rate as Martinez, and he strikes out a bit more, but it's not like some sort of deal killer. Everyone strikes out these days. And as varied as the talent level in Cuba is, Diaz’s being able to hit that well that young says something about his advanced skills. And as he grows up and fills out, he’ll continue to to hit for more and more power. You can’t really expect a teenager to be bopping home runs all the time. But a line-drive, all fields hitter at 24 with excellent zone command could lead to greatness. He’s shown flashes already.
Is it rude and probably foolish to put this sort of weight on the minor league exploits of a player that was practically a non-prospect until this year? Yeah, probably. But what's spring for if not reckless optimism and boundless hope? It's not a groundless supposition to think Diaz could turn into a very good major league bat, even if he is barely able to find a place on the field. The hardest thing to do in baseball is decode your own strike zone and know when and when not to swing. He’s been doing that since he was a teenager, and continues to demonstrate elite patience. Moreso than any other recent Tribe prospect. Martinez is just one of many examples showing that becoming elite does not mean cracking the majors at 22 or 23, and making the Hall of Fame can be done on your own pace. Diaz is going to see the majors, and it's going to be for his bat. He's growing and improving as Martinez did in the minors, at least statistically, and the club likes him.
Breakouts happen at any time, at every level. That could be what we're seeing here.