Evaluating Yusniel Díaz and the other prospects the Orioles acquired in the Manny Machado trade

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

In acquiring a five-player prospect package from the Los Angeles Dodgers for All-Star shortstop Manny Machado on Wednesday, including Cuban center fielder Yusniel Díaz, pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop, and infielders Rylan Bannon and Breyvic Valera, the Orioles continued a process that began in last month’s MLB draft of using this summer's talent-acquisition opportunities to fill in the gaps in their farm system.

The Orioles, by virtue of some improved draft classes, have loads of high-floor pitching, and have used 2017 and 2018 first-rounders DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez to add some possible impact to that group. They're also well-set in corner outfield bats in the high minors, and don't have a single up-the-middle infielder in full-season ball. Oregon State shortstop Cadyn Grenier, their second draft pick this year, changed that.

So it's no surprise that in selecting players from the Dodgers’ system to trade for Machado, the Orioles filled some more gaps.

Díaz is a higher-ceiling center field prospect than the ones the Orioles have in the high minors, Cedric Mullins and Ryan McKenna. Bannon joins Grenier as an intriguing infield prospect. Kremer joins a thin crop of pitching prospects in the high minors, a list that pretty much only includes the injured Hunter Harvey and left-hander Keegan Akin at Bowie. Pop is a hard-throwing reliever in a system in which they're scarce. Valera is the Orioles' latest attempt at a utility man, a role they haven't filled since Ryan Flaherty left last year.

Yusniel Díaz, CF

The centerpiece of the deal, though, is Díaz, the 21-year-old Cuban outfielder the Dodgers signed after he won the Serie Nacional Rookie of the Year award in Cuba in 2015. Díaz debuted stateside in 2016, but took a major leap forward this summer at Double-A Tulsa. Many credit his health, and a refined approach at the plate, for helping him unlock his potential at the plate.

Díaz impressed with a pair of home runs at Sunday's MLB All-Star Futures Game before a pair of Orioles scouts and is batting .314 with a .905 OPS in 59 games for the Drillers. Even before that, he was one of the breakout prospects in all of the minor leagues, though it's not as if he was a secret.

Between his signing bonus and the tax the Dodgers paid to sign him at 19, he cost $31 million, and has been in the spotlight ever since. He's well on his way to a career high in home runs with six so far, beginning to put his plus bat speed, strong bat-to-ball skills and approach together into a threatening package at the plate.

The power would be a bonus if the underlying skills behind his career .288 minor league average and this year's 41 walks against 39 strikeouts translate at the highest level.

Defensively, he has the speed and arm for all three positions, playing primarily center field in the Dodgers’ system. Díaz was rated the No. 47 prospect in Baseball America's midseason rankings, No. 31 in Baseball Prospectus' midseason rankings, and No. 84 by MLB.com.

Rylan Bannon, IF

Bannon is another infield prospect to add to the Orioles' low minors along with Grenier and 2017 first-day draft pick Adam Hall. A teammate of Orioles left-hander Zac Lowther at Xavier, Bannon won Big East Player of the Year honors in 2017 as Lowther was named Pitcher of the Year.

The Dodgers selected him in the eighth round last year and jumped Bannon, 22, right to High-A Rancho Cucamonga to start 2018 after he played rookie ball last year. Despite not showing much power until his final year at Xavier, he's homered 20 times with 16 doubles in the hitter-friendly California League, helping him to a .296/.402/.559 line in 89 games. Despite some uppercut in his swing, his high strikeout rate is largely because of the deep counts he gets himself in, and he otherwise shows a good command of the strike zone.

There are far fewer questions about his glove. Bannon is rated as an above-average defender at third base and has played some second base as well this season. The Orioles could use him at either spot, though there does seem to be some utility potential there, too. MLBPipeline.com had him rated No. 27 in the Dodgers system.

Dean Kremer, RHP

Kremer, who recently was promoted to Double-A Tulsa, was back-and-forth between the bullpen and starting rotation in parts of two seasons before he was in the Rancho Cucamonga rotation full-time this year.

Kremer, a 14th-round pick from Nevada-Las Vegas in 2016, responded well, posting a 3.30 ERA in 17 starts with 114 strikeouts in 79 innings with a 1.18 WHIP — impressive numbers for a hitter's league. He struck out 11 in seven scoreless innings in his debut for Tulsa on July 5, and hasn't pitched since. His 12.99 strikeouts per nine this season at Rancho Cucamonga is near-unheard of for a starter.

An Israeli dual-citizen who pitched for Israel in the World Baseball Classic last year, the 6-foot-3 Kremer is relatively new to pitching full-time and boasts a low-90s fastball that tops out at 96 mph with a three-pitch mix. His command of those and overall consistency this year has explained his recent success, and he'd jumped to No. 28 in MLBPipeline.com's Dodgers ratings.

According to Baseball America's midseason organizational rankings, part of his success came from changing to a four-seam/curveball mix from a two-seam/slider mix after consulting with the Dodgers' analytics staff. His new curveball projects as an above-average pitch.

Zach Pop, RHP

Pop, too, defied the California League's reputation to pitch well there before the trade. A 2017 seventh-round pick out of Kentucky, Pop has dominated two levels with a sinker-slider combo in his first full year as a pro. His fastball runs 94-97 mph and has substantial horizontal break, complemented by a short, tight slider from a low 3/4 arm slot. Like most relievers, he needs to command them consistently for success.

The command has largely been there this year, as Pop struck out 24 in 16 1/3 innings with a 2.20 ERA for Low-A Great Lakes before going to Rancho Cucamonga and allowing one run in 27 innings with a 0.70 WHIP and 23 strikeouts against six walks.

Breyvic Valera, IF

The only piece with major league experience of the group is Valera, a 26-year-old Venezuelan infielder who came to the Dodgers from the Cardinals at the end of spring training. A career .302 minor league hitter, Valera hasn't hit for much power in his career, and has six hits — all singles — in 39 major league at-bats.

Valera played mostly at shortstop when in Triple-A with the Dodgers this year, though he's had extensive time at second base, third base and in left field. If Valera doesn't get a chance to replace Machado on the major league roster, he'll go to a crowded infield in Norfolk, with one minor league option remaining after this year.

In summary

While the Orioles will hope the major league return on this five-for-one deal is similar to the one that netted Adam Jones and Chris Tillman for Erik Bedard a decade ago, the parallels seem to end with the center field centerpieces, Díaz and Jones. Tillman was top-25 prospect himself, with a little more pedigree than the top starter in this deal, Kremer.

But in Kremer, Bannon, Pop, and even Díaz to some extent, the Orioles are placing a lot of value in present-day performance. Díaz showed the tools to make him a potential impact player at the Futures Game. What the rest lack in pedigree, for lack of a better phrase, and prospect fame, they make up for in performance. And the Orioles better hope they keep it up.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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