Do Not Write Off Yusniel Diaz Just Yet

by Bailey Srebnik
Do Not Write Off Yusniel Diaz Just Yet

In this week's deep dive into Dynasty Baseball prospects, I'm here to tell you: Do Not Write Off Yusniel Diaz Just Yet!

Let's go through his track record in the minors and examine his recent resurgence so we can keep buying in on this once highly-touted prospect whose had a largely up-and-down tenure across two teams.

Do Not Write Off Yusniel Diaz Just Yet

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The Dodger Years

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Flashback to summer of 2015, and take a look at MLB Pipeline's Top International Prospect Rankings. Three of the league's superstars are among the list: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #7, Juan Soto #25, and Fernando Tatis Jr. #30. Five other players in the Top 30 have made their MLB Debut, showing that this was quite a strong J2 Class. Furthermore, there is a player who was ranked ahead of the three superstars, and he received a larger signing bonus than the three of them combined. The man of the hour is current Orioles outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz.

Raked third overall in the J2 Class, Diaz signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a $15.5 million deal. This was the second-biggest signing of that period behind only fellow Dodger Yadier Alvarez ($16 million).

Diaz debuted in 2016, and put up solid stats in High-A Rancho Cucamonga. He had eight home runs, seven stolen bases, and a .333 OBP. The concern with Diaz is that, dating back to his Dodger days, he has been a bit "injury-prone." In every season of his pro career, from 2016 to 2021, he has made at least one trip to the injured list.

However, when he is on the field, he can be one of the most talented players out there. When he reached Double-A Tulsa in 2017, he broke out with an .881 OPS and 149 wRC+ in 118 AB. He started 2018 back in Double-A, and picked up right where he left off. Up until the trade deadline, he put up a .905 OPS and 152 wRC+, while also lowering his strikeout rate by nearly 10%. The Yusniel Diaz breakout campaign was in full swing.

Diaz played in the 2018 All Star Futures Game, where he went yard twice. He became just the second player to hit two home runs in the 20-year history of the showcase:

The manager of Diaz's team was Hall of Fame hitter David Ortiz, and he said this about the twenty-year-old Dodgers slugger: "His approach is legit...This guy hits like he has two strikes - with power. That's something that impressed me a lot. The two homers that he hit they were, like, big guys' bombs. He looked great." That is some high praise from one of the league's all-time greats!

The Oriole Years

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In the summer of 2018, the Baltimore Orioles were preparing to enter a long-term rebuild, as they tore down their roster. Many notable names such as Kevin Gausman, Darren O'Day, Zack Britton, and Jonathan Schoop were shown the door. The biggest name to be traded was the face of the franchise: Manny Machado. Rumors swirled in July 2018 regarding where he would be traded, and who would be the return.

On July 18, 2018, the announcement came, and Machado was traded to the Dodgers for a four player package headlined by Yusniel Diaz. At the time of the trade, Diaz was ranked as the Dodgers' fourth-overall prospect, and the 85th-overall prospect in baseball. Diaz finished the 2018 season in Double-A Bowie, where his stats came down to Earth a bit, but were still above league average.

Entering the 2019 season, the hype for Diaz was at its peak. He was ranked as the 64th-overall prospect in baseball, and the top prospect on the Orioles. He was ranked ahead of Ryan Mountcastle, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and other key pieces of the rebuild.

Diaz was limited to 82 games in 2019, however, as he dealt with multiple injuries. When he was healthy, though, his talent was evident, as he posted a 135 wRC+ with 11 home runs for Double-A Bowie. He was still fairly highly ranked after the season, coming in at #8 on MLB Pipeline's Orioles Top 30. Then, unfortunately, like most prospects, Diaz's 2020 season was lost to the pandemic, as he spent the summer at the Orioles' Alternate Training Site.

2021 was a prove-it year for the twenty-four-year-old Diaz, and he simply did not come through. He missed more time with injuries. Since 2018, he's dealt with hamstring, quad, ankle, and toe injuries. Most concerningly, this was the first season of Diaz's career where he did not perform well when on the field. In 65 games between Double-A and Triple-A, his strikeout rate ballooned above 30% for the first time, while his rate stats like OPS and wRC+ fell dramatically low as well.

Following the regular season, Diaz was sent to the Arizona Fall League to get in some more work. Seven games into his stint, he was looking good, as he hit one home run and had a .827 OPS. Unfortunately for Diaz, he strained his left shoulder, and was shut down for the remainder of the season.

Entering the 2022 season, Diaz was starting to become a bit of an afterthought in Orioles prospect circles. The Orioles now have the best farm system in baseball, and he is no longer universally viewed as one of the key factors of the rebuild. FanGraphs released their Top 45 Orioles prospects list in February, and Diaz did not even make the "prospects of note" section.

Although written off by some, Diaz entered Spring Training ready to get to work. In 20 PA in the Spring, Diaz hit one home run, drew four walks, and posted a 1.250 OPS. Yes, it was a small sample size, but it is great to see some life in his bat. Some observers, including myself, thought Diaz might have done enough to get himself in the MLB Opening Day roster conversation, but he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk. This was the right decision, as he will now get regular at-bats daily.

In his first week with Norfolk, he picked up right where he left off in Spring Training, as he has hit two home runs, has a 1.270 OPS, and struck out just twice. Once again, a small sample size, but he is crushing it so far.

If this resurgence by Diaz proves to be legit, it would be a huge catalyst for the Orioles' rebuild. Looking back at the fateful month in 2018 when the rebuild got underway, the Orioles did not get much value out of their 2018 deadline deals. The best prospect by fWAR from that group is Dillon Tate, and his 0.8 fWAR is accompanied by a 4.63 ERA. The best player they got from those deals was Jonathan Villar, who had a 24/40 season for the Orioles in 2019, before being traded to Miami.

In spite of the underwhelming returns from the 2018 deadline moves, made by the former regime, the new front office has seemingly been making wise moves. As it stands right now, there is plenty of room on the MLB roster for prospects to audition, as the Orioles are still transitioning out of their rebuild. Diaz has shown in the past that he has the talent to succeed; he just needs to stay on the field.

From a Fantasy Baseball perspective, I am scooping up Diaz in any dynasty league that he is available. He should either be free on the waiver wire or cheap in trades, so there is no reason not to take a shot on him to see if his small sample size is real. Adding him is low risk, high reward.

We should try to keep our expectations realistic given Diaz's track record, but if he can keep it up for another month or two, he will undoubtedly debut in the Majors this season, and hopefully stick around. If a player like Diaz, who was written off by prospect sites, turns out to be an impact player after all, that is the kind of thing that will propel the Orioles one major step closer to being competitive again.

Post Article Update:

Perhaps this should be a cautionary tale about writing a hype piece regarding an "injury prone" prospect one week into the season. As I went to click the "publish" button on this article, I got a notification that Yusniel Diaz left Tuesday night's game with a hamstring injury, which may linger for the foreseeable future. I still like him and I still think he will be good, but he does have the propensity to get hurt, as he is now facing another setback. Oh well.


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