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Sports Rosie DiManno: New Jay Diaz turns corner on baseball journey

16:07  13 march  2018
16:07  13 march  2018 Source:   thestar.com

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Diaz was traded to Toronto in December by the Cardinals in exchange for minor-league outfielder J.B. Woodman, intended to be a versatile infielder and Certainly the 27-year-old is adjusting well to a new clubhouse, new teammates, new league and the familiarity of fellow Cubans. “I’m happy to have not

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DUNEDIN, Fla.—It’s Little Cuba. Or the Cuban Corner. Or maybe the defector trifecta.

One-two-three of them, at WSW in the Blue Jays clubhouse: Aledmys Diaz between Kendrys Morales and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. An existential juxtaposition.

Morales crossed the Florida Strait on a raft. Gurriel’s odyssey wound through five intermediary countries. Diaz jumped ship, so to speak, while the Cuban national team was touring in the Netherlands.

That was in 2012 and Diaz was granted residency in Mexico, where he spent the next 15 months idling, forbidden by Major League Baseball from signing as a free agent with any team because he’d falsified his age. One-year suspension.

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The things a person will do for freedom. And probably it comes easier for baseball players, who have a craft to peddle, incubated in the respected Cuban system.

“It’s a sacrifice that you have to make,” says Diaz, through Blue Jays interpreter Josue Peley. “I miss my family a lot. It was a long journey. I thank Mexico to give me a chance, to give me a residency. But sometimes in life, in order to achieve your dreams, you have to make sacrifices. And look at me now. I’m here.’’

Diaz was traded to Toronto in December by the Cardinals in exchange for minor-league outfielder J.B. Woodman, intended to be a versatile infielder and depth insurance up the middle. Fortunate, that, with Troy Tulowitzki nursing a bone spur on his right heel on top of recovering from a gruesomely sprained ankle and ligament damage in the same foot from last season and possibly headed for the 60-day DL.

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Off-season pickup Aledmys Diaz, who will likely start at shortstop when the regular season opens, has been on the Blue Jays’ radar for a while.© Frank Gunn Off-season pickup Aledmys Diaz, who will likely start at shortstop when the regular season opens, has been on the Blue Jays’ radar for a while.

Suddenly it looks like Diaz will be the everyday shortstop when the Jays break camp and for some time beyond.

“I had the chance to be an everyday player in St. Louis in 2016 and 2017. You never want a guy on your team to be hurt, like Tulo right now. But I’m ready for the opportunity and I’m ready to play.”

The Jays are hoping they get the Diaz of 2016 rather than the Diaz of 2017. He was an all-star in his debut season and fifth in rookie-of-the-year voting, hitting .300 with 17 home runs, 65 RBIs and an .879 OPS in 111 games. The Cardinals, historically cautious about international free agents, were thrilled, patting themselves on the back for corralling Diaz after a showcase audition, signing him to a four-year contract worth $8 million U.S. (Turns out, as Toronto manager John Gibbons revealed on Monday, that the Jays had brought him to the minor-league camp that year for a look-see. “I liked what I saw then.”)

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It was a quick fall from grace in St. Louis, however, coinciding with the rise of Paul DeJong, who took over at short while Diaz was packed off to the minor midway through ’17.

“Of course, it went really well for me in 2016, with the all-star appearance,” says Diaz, recalling his big splash. “I made some good contact at the beginning of the year, but I think I got unlucky a little bit. It didn’t start well for me and St. Louis sent me back to the minors. I didn’t like that too much, but it’s stuff that happens. Baseball is a game of adjustments and I needed to make some. So I went there, worked on my strike zone and on my pitch recognition. Then I came back and I’m here now.

“I’m really happy for a fresh start. (The Cards) gave me the chance to come here to the United States and sign and play for them. But it’s also nice to get new teammates, new city, new ballpark and a new start.’’

Startling, really, how much Diaz’s game regressed last season. Walks plummeted by 50 per cent, an already elevated strikeout percentage increased while his average dropped almost 20 points versus fastballs and his swing rate rose more than 15 per cent. Not only did he swing at more pitches overall but he also swung at 40 per cent more outside of the zone, thus the contact quality shrunk severely and the exit velocity dipped. He was no longer the poised hitter who avoided chasing pitches. His approach at the plate changed dramatically. His slashline in 79 games with St. Louis was .259/.290/.392 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. Pitchers had made adjustments with him and Diaz seemed unable to counter.

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This, the Jays believe, can be fixed. So does he.

“When you’re struggling, when you’re trying to do more, more is less. Sometimes I had really good hitter counts, 3-and-1, and instead of taking a walk, because I wasn’t doing well, I tried to put the ball in play. Trying to make something happen. Pitchers started expanding the zone, knowing that when you’re struggling it’s easier to put some swings on. But you learn from that and you grow from that. Going forward, with experience, you make those adjustments.”

In Monday’s loss to the Red Sox, Diaz hammered his first spring homer.

Certainly the 27-year-old is adjusting well to a new clubhouse, new teammates, new league and the familiarity of fellow Cubans.

“I’m happy to have not only a Cuban corner, but it’s always nice to have a core of Latin players that you can rely on. Mostly Kendrys is a guy that’s always played in the American League, so I think he’s going to help me a lot adjusting because the leagues are a little bit different. Having a guy like Gurriel, too. I played with his brother (Yuli) in Cuba.’’

Although many Cuban players have taken the defection plunge, the risks and cultural alienation can’t be underestimated. Diaz was only 21 when he left his hometown of Santa Clara and the Naranjas de Villa Clara club behind, with no guarantees of a big-league career. “You have to become a man. I became a man in three months. You have to do stuff that you were never used to before. It’s hard.”

And it’s lonely. Although his parents have now moved to the U.S. Diaz hasn’t seen his extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins in a long time. “It’s not easy to just leave your people behind. It’s the biggest decision I ever took in my life. I didn’t know if any team was going to want me.’’

It is dreadful, prevented from even visiting Cuba for at least another three years. “It’s something really sad when you’re from a country and you leave because you’re trying to play at a higher level of baseball. And they don’t let you come back. Not just for me, but for any human being. The other Latin players, they can go back to their countries in the off-season.

“I miss my country and my city.”

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