On his way to first base, with his game-winning walk-off homer settling somewhere in the woods beyond the left-field fence at Bowie’s Prince George’s Stadium, Orioles outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz gave hitting coach Keith Bodie an unmistakable, knowing look: They’d found something.
A year after Diaz was the centerpiece in the trade that sent Orioles star Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers and heralded the beginning of what’s been a painful rebuild, that June 12 home run began what’s been Diaz’s best stretch since the deal.
The hype surrounding the 22-year-old outfielder and the constant attachment to Machado has died down. His daughter, Valerie, was born earlier this month. And combined with tireless early work with Bodie, Diaz feels he’s in the best place yet to deliver on the talent that made him the featured piece of that trade a year ago Thursday.
“At the beginning, it affected me for sure,” Diaz said, via interpreter José Corrales. "It was intense. The whole trade, all the talking about Manny Machado — one of the best players in the game — and I was involved in that trade. It was a lot of pressure on me. At the beginning, I had a lot of pressure, but after that, I stopped thinking about it, and I relaxed a little more, and I was performing better after that.
“I think it was this year in spring training. I feel like all the talk about the trade was a little farther away, so I was a little more focused on playing my game and being the player that I was when I was with the Dodgers.”
Diaz became the Orioles’ top prospect from the moment he arrived, according to Baseball America, joining Bowie after he hit .314 with a .905 OPS at Double-A Tulsa and smacked two home runs in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in 2018. Once he got into a Baysox uniform, he hit .239/.329/.403 with five home runs in 38 games, and the Orioles began tinkering with his batting stance right from the get-go.
That was the beginning of his work with Bodie, who said the two developed an understanding thanks to veteran minor leaguers such as Aderlin Rodriguez and Corban Joseph telling Diaz how much Bodie could help him. The rapport helped coming into 2019. But this offseason, Diaz went back to the toe-tap timing device with his front foot that he used when he first joined the Dodgers organization as a 19-year-old star from Cuba worth a $15.5 million signing bonus.
He had a good spring, but was quickly sent to minor league camp and rejoined Bowie. After a slow start and a hamstring injury, he returned to Bowie and began working with Bodie on a consistent stance and approach to unlock his natural bat speed and allow him to cover the whole plate.
“He was in between a leg kick and not a leg kick,” Bodie said. “We got to the point where we got him comfortable with his leg kick. Because no matter what you do, no matter how you gain ground, you’ve got to get to a pause in your set-up. He wasn’t doing that. Now, he’s gotten comfortable and he’s got a routine that he’s done every day that puts him in a good spot. It’s working. It speaks for itself.”
“At one point, he had a leg kick. Then he didn’t have a leg kick. Then he wasn’t moving his foot at all," Bowie manager Buck Britton said. "I think Keith kind of peeled that back and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to stick with one thing that works and we’re going to build off of a foundation.’ If you don’t have a foundation at the plate, it’s going to be tough to be consistent. I think that was the biggest thing for Keith, to get him a foundation and then from there, kind of move the contact point further out in front of the plate so his power can play a little bit. He’s been pretty good recently.”
Diaz was a week into his return to the Baysox when he homered in the 10th inning June 12 against New Hampshire, the first of three consecutive games in which he hit rockets out to left field. His stance was still closed, but he was much closer to home plate, allowing him to still protect the outside part of the strike zone while being able to tap into his pull power.
"There is no outer half for him anymore," Bodie said. "He's taking the whole plate away from the pitchers. It's been something big for him."
Since June 12, when both Bodie and Diaz think the recent changes took hold, Diaz is batting .291/.378/.618 with eight of his nine home runs and 31 of his 42 RBIs.
"I feel really good right now, where I'm standing," Diaz said. "I feel like I'm more within myself, trying to get every detail right, trying to fix every problem that I had in the past, to have the best player that I can be to help the team, and at the same time, help myself, too."
Part of it is the swing. Part of it is seeing the results. There’s also the small matter of the birth of his daughter, Valerie, earlier this month that has given him the peace of mind that an expectant father might not have.
"I feel more relaxed now because I had that pressure," Diaz said. "I was thinking about when she would be born, and all that stuff. Now that I have my girl with me, it's the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm more relaxed, ready to play every game, and I have some extra motivation now that she's with us."
As the Orioles’ new regime tries to get the most they can out of their 22-year-old potential star, keeping those good feelings intact will be paramount to getting the best version of Diaz to Camden Yards when the time is right.
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“I think the biggest thing is just the confidence,” Britton said. “We talked about it earlier how he was probably a little overwhelmed being the centerpiece of that trade, trying to do too much. But as he settled in, he got off to a little bit of a slow start. But as he has picked it up, you see the tools that he has start to play, night-in and night-out, and he’s become a big piece of the middle of our lineup, and a big reason why we’re starting to win the way we’re winning.”
One year out
The Machado trade for five minor leaguers last July 18 started the Orioles’ trade frenzy, and brought the biggest haul of any of their five trades. Here’s how the other four players from the Dodgers are faring a year later:
RHP Dean Kremer – Kremer finished a 2018 season in which he led the minors in strikeouts last year at Bowie, and returned there after an oblique injury robbed him of his spring training. He has a 3.20 ERA over 12 starts between High-A Frederick and Bowie this year, with 66 strikeouts against 20 walks in 64 2/3 innings.
RHP Zach Pop – A promising young reliever, Pop allowed one earned run on seven hits and four walks with 11 strikeouts over 10 2/3 innings at Bowie this season before an elbow injury landed him on the injured list, requiring Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. He won’t pitch again until 2020.
IF Rylan Bannon – Bannon won the California League MVP despite not being in that league last year after the trade, but the jump in level was a significant one. Bannon is batting .252/.353/.385 with 25 doubles and eight home runs in 121 games over two seasons for Bowie.
IF Breyvic Valera – The only player in that trade with major league experience before or since, Valera hit .286 in 12 games with the Orioles last year before being designated for assignment in January and traded to the San Francisco Giants. He ended up in the New York Yankees’ system, and spent a week in the big leagues this month.