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Cards sign highly touted Cuban free agent Diaz

Signing product of organization's commitment to international scouting

VIERA, Fla. -- The Cardinals, who addressed their shortstop deficiency for the immediate by adding Jhonny Peralta in November, may have solidified it for the longer term with Sunday's signing of highly touted, 23-year-old Cuban free agent Aledmys Diaz to a Major League contract.

The organization did not include contract details when it announced the signing, but confirmed the deal to be four years in length. The Cardinals anticipate assigning Diaz to one of their upper-level affiliates to start the season, but he'll be introduced to the Major League side on Monday, when he reports to big league camp.

Even though the financial figures of the deal were not released, this represents the biggest splash the Cardinals have ever made in the international market.

"It's exciting when you see the new territory that the organization is going into and looking into," manager Mike Matheny said after the Cardinals' loss on Sunday. "You realize that there have been some big splashes when you look at what a [Yasiel] Puig has done and these other young players. You want to see, 'What does this other market look like? And how does it compare with what we already see on a daily basis with what we already have?'"

Other than stating in a press release that this "signing marks a significant benchmark for the Cardinals in the international arena," general manager John Mozeliak declined comment on the agreement. He is scheduled to meet with the media on Monday, along with Diaz, to discuss the signing. With the deal, the Cardinals' 40-man roster is now full.

After playing five seasons for Los Naranjas de Villa Clarra in Cuba's top professional league, the right-handed hitting Diaz defected from Cuba in 2012 while playing in a tournament in the Netherlands. He established residency in Mexico so that he would be able to sign with a Major League club, but was declared ineligible last summer after presenting a false birth date in his paperwork.

Diaz stated that he was born on Jan. 8, 1990, which would have given him an exemption from the international signing guidelines written in the Collective Bargaining agreement because he would have already turned 23 and played in a Cuban professional league for at least three seasons.

In actuality, Diaz did not turn 23 until Aug. 1, 2013. Major League Baseball allowed him to regain his free-agent eligibility on Feb. 19, which is why Diaz spent much of the last month traveling around to work out in front of different teams. Among them were the Cardinals, who hosted Diaz at their spring complex in Jupiter, Fla. in mid-February.

Members of the Major League staff and front office gathered around a practice field that afternoon to watch Diaz take batting practice and grounders at short. Matheny said he was struck by how "polished" Diaz looked during the tryout. Matheny also saw mannerisms that reminded him of Derek Jeter.

"It's not a bad person to emulate," Matheny said. "The way he walks, the way he approaches the ball, the way he sets up, a lot of similarities. He's had a lot of repetitions at this game and you can tell. He's not just one of those raw talents. Sometimes you just see a kid out there who is just loose and you can tell is athletic and has tools that are off the charts. But this kid looks like he understands the game.

"Tools are tools, and that equals potential. It's a matter of how we refine it, and we have a great development system to help with that. It will be fun to watch him progress."

Though Diaz began playing in Cuba's Serie Nacional professional league when he was 17, he has not played in games since he defected from Cuba. The Cardinals, Matheny said, expect Diaz to appear in Grapefruit League play this month, but they first will make sure he's physically ready to go.

The Cardinals signed Diaz as a shortstop, but he offers the versatility to play elsewhere in the infield. So, too, does Peralta, who signed a four-year deal worth $53 million during the offseason. With Peralta also able to play third and Diaz considered capable at second, the Cardinals will have the flexibility to have them both in the starting lineup at some point. Matt Carpenter's versatility gives the Cardinals further elasticity in the infield.

The fact that the Cardinals were able to land Diaz is a credit to their taking steps to allocate more resources toward international scouting. The organization only recently focused on getting its fingerprints on the emerging markets in Cuba and Asia.

It was all a part of the organizational blueprint principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr. laid out a decade ago. After the Cardinals reconstructed their facility in the Dominican Republic, learned to maximize investment in the amateur draft and streamlined their player development system, the Cardinals planned to expand globally.

Sunday's signing was evidence that the Cardinals are now there.

"Hats off to our organization," Matheny said, "for expanding what it's always looked like."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
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