Sarasota, Fla. — Yusniel Diaz, the Orioles' top prospect and the prized piece of last summer's trade of Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers, introduced himself to the team's new management and fans alike with an impressive home run in Saturday's Grapefruit League opener that he believes comes from a change in his lower half during his powerful swing.
When Diaz arrived with the Orioles, fresh off a two-homer performance in the MLB All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park, he had a toe-tap as a timing mechanism for his swing. That's gone in favor of a leg lift this year, something Diaz believes "allows me to be more relaxed at the plate, be ready to hit, and be ready to hit every single time.
"It's very minor, the adjustment that I made," Diaz said, via team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. "I went back to how I started as a professional, but just very little adjustment. ... It is with my lower half, lifting my legs a little bit. I've always enjoyed that and liked that. That's basically the minor adjustment I made."
Despite Diaz's pedigree as a $15.5 million signing out of Cuba and status as one of the game's top prospects by multiple outlets’ rankings, he struggled some upon his arrival at Double-A Bowie in July, batting .239/.329/.403 with five home runs after hitting .314 with a .905 OPS in the first half of the season at Double-A Tulsa.
The Orioles went to work quickly ironing out some things in his lower half, particularly with his back foot where he still sometimes ended up bailing out. But the front foot leg-lift, which Diaz didn't feature in his native Cuba but did employ in his breakout 2017 season in the Dodgers system, was effective in letting Diaz stay back and muscle out a 1-0, back-door breaking ball from left-hander Gabriel Moya out to left field at Ed Smith Stadium.
"I got it all, for sure," Diaz said.
Diaz, who flew out in his first at-bat and struck out after a long battle with the bases loaded in his third at-bat, caught the attention of manager Brandon Hyde.
"He took really good swings," Hyde said. "Even the strikeout, he laid off a couple really nasty off-speed pitches underneath and the guy just threw him a great 3-2 changeup. Just to be able to see his presence at the plate, and not be jumpy, I was really, really impressed.
"He just missed one his first at-bat with a great swing. Obviously, hits a homer, but his third at-bat, even that strikeout, that was a pro AB, the way he laid off some really, really tough pitches in a runner in scoring position situation, that was really, really impressive. A guy just beat him on a 3-2 changeup. It happens."
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Diaz, who is a non-roster invitee and has plenty of competition to break camp in the major league outfield with Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, Anthony Santander, Joey Rickard, Eric Young Jr., and Ryan McKenna all in the mix, was glad to start the spring on that note.
"It was very important," Diaz said. "I felt relaxed. I think I had a good at-bat throughout the game, and I just wanted to make a really good impression, to my teammates, to the new staff that's around, and to the fans."
A tradition lives on
Left fielder Trey Mancini on Saturday took over an Orioles tradition that could have died with the departure of longtime center fielder Adam Jones.
Jones used to order in Popeyes chicken after the first spring training game every year, and Mancini took it upon himself to do the same this year.
Trumbo on track
Outfielder Mark Trumbo, who is being held out of spring training games in the early part of the schedule as he recovers from knee surgery, is “progressing really nicely,” Hyde said. Trumbo took batting practice on the field and did outfield drills at Ed Smith Stadium on Sunday, but hasn’t been in the lineup for either game so far.
“We’re going to be, obviously, really patient with him,” Hyde said. “Coming back from a serious knee issue, and he’s been around a while. we’re going to really be relying on him with communicating with us how he feels every single day. But we have a really good training staff, and they feel really confident that he’s progressing well. We met with him this morning and I think he’s very happy with where he’s at. I can’t give any kind of timetable on when he’s ready. It’s going to be kind of how he feels over the next few weeks, month, before he’s ready to go.”
Around the horn
Right-hander Zach Pop pitched the ninth inning of Saturday's win, and the coaching staff noticed his velocity was down from the mid- to high-90s that he typically throws to the high-80s. Hyde said he’d be held back from his normal schedule for the time being as a result of that, though he didn't specify any physical issue. … Right-hander Nate Karns will start Monday against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, followed by right-hander Hunter Harvey, right-hander Luis Ortiz, left-hander Chris Lee, right-hander Miguel Castro, left-hander Donnie Hart, and right-hander Josh Lucas. … Right-hander Mike Wright will start Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium. Wright pitched two scoreless innings with three hits and a strikeout Saturday.