Focus on mental fortitude for No. 12 prospect Diaz

March 18th, 2022

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It wouldn’t be hard to blame Yusniel Diaz if his shoulders have the slightest sag as he walks around the Ed Smith Stadium complex. To this point in his career, battling expectations and injuries, the pressure has swelled. Diaz, the headline in the return from the 2018 Manny Machado trade, is still trying to find his way to the Major League club -- by way of production, impression and pure placement.

Also, there’s something missing in Diaz's heart -- and stomach.

“I want a good steak,” Diaz laughed on Friday, “with arroz moro [Cuban black bean rice], maduros [fried sweet plantains], avocado from Cuba.

“Now I have to stop. It's salads, chicken breast, salmon.”

It’s the classic Spring Training story. A player who diets, changes their regimen -- sometimes declares themself “in the best shape of their life" -- in order to give themself the best chance to break camp with the team. But in Diaz’s case, the opportunities are becoming more precious by the day. He’s now 25 years old, his prospect stock having taken a hit, and he’s trying to break into an Orioles outfield that doesn’t feature a plethora of opportunities -- and a stiff competition.

Less Cuban steak and more greens is a sacrifice he’ll happily make if it helps generate what he hopes is the light at the end of his proverbial tunnel.

“Honestly,” Diaz said of his hopes this year through translator Brandon Quinones, “just staying healthy and doing everything I can to possibly make the Major League roster.”

Legs stronger, smile brighter, body healthier and shoulders stout nonetheless, Diaz has his sights set on showing out this spring. He received his first chance in Friday’s Grapefruit League-opening 9-5 loss to the Blue Jays, batting seventh and going 0-for-1 while walking twice and scoring one run. He feels healthy, after a shoulder injury during the Arizona Fall League slate cut his time short, and he feels overall fresh, after hamstring strain and quad ailments in 2019, left shoulder soreness in ’20 and turf toe and another quad injury in ’21 have limited him to just 188 Minor League games over parts of the last three full seasons (four years).

Last year, that manifested as only 65 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk and a .161/.233/.265 slash line.

“It was my worst season up to date. It was difficult,” Diaz said. “But all I can do is learn from my mistakes and learn from my errors, and [I’m] looking forward to the best season I can possibly have.”

But most importantly, he and those around him don’t want him to feel the pressure.

“I think we've seen the tools in Spring Training. He’s shown flashes of being a really good outfielder,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He's had a tough time staying healthy since [2018-19]. I'm hoping he can rebound from that and stay healthy throughout this camp. … He’s a guy with a ton of ability, just now he needs to stay on the field and make some adjustments, and hopefully he’ll be ready for the big leagues at some point.”

On paper, the odds are stacked against Diaz. Barring anything unforeseen, the O’s are returning their 2021 outfield -- all of whom have a pretty sizable leg up on the depth chart. Center fielder Cedric Mullins is primed to be flanked by Austin Hays and Anthony Santander. And at that, Hyde said that Trey Mancini will get some time in the corner outfield spots this spring. DJ Stewart, Ryan McKenna and prospects like Kyle Stowers (the lone player of the group not on the 40-man roster) also plan to push for playing time.

The pressure is mounting for Diaz. The most touted player the O’s received in that Machado blockbuster trade with the Dodgers in 2018, Diaz slotted in as Baltimore’s top prospect following his arrival, per MLB Pipeline, slid back to No. 8 the following year and now sits at No. 12 as one of the oldest players still under prospect status.

Mental fortitude has been chief among Diaz’s offseason training priorities, too. It’s not that he feels angry about his fall from upper-echelon prospect status, but that he has the fuel to return to when he felt most comfortable on a baseball field.

“I know I've changed a lot,” Diaz said, “and the biggest thing for me it's just been my mentality -- getting strong, just trying to keep a positive attitude throughout all that I've gone through.”