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The Disappointing Spring of Isan Diaz

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Baseball, Daily Coverage

This Spring, the Miami Marlins’ 14-5-5 mark paced the other clubs in Grapefruit League play, and the team’s .737 winning percentage led all MLB. With each passing win, fan excitement grew. While most Marlins fans couldn’t watch the games, spring storylines unfurled on social media and several coverage outlets. Among those storylines: the battle for second base between Jazz Chisholmand Isan Diaz.

Much of the coverage focused, perhaps rightly, on Chisholm earning the nod at second. But what can’t be forgotten in the discussion is the disappointment of Diaz. The 24-year-old held the inside track, but ultimately lost the position.

On Sunday, Marlins general manager Kim Ng joined the Marlins’ radio broadcast and revealed Chisholm had won the battle. With the nod, Jazz will become the 12thplayer in team history to start at second on Opening Day. His counterpart in that fight, though, finds himself headed back to Triple-A.

Isan’s Spring

The Marlins started Spring Training set at many positions, but second base remained up for grabs. Diaz, Chisholm and Jon Bertistood among the contenders, though Berti’s role continues to be more suited to a super-utility.

Diaz seemed poised to win the job. Coming off a lost 2020 season, he sought to regain the self-assuredness that’d propelled him as a prospect.

“I’m not going to lie and say here that I was confident in myself,” Diaz said in early March. “I was trying to find who I was at the plate.”

Marlins manager Don Mattinglynoted Diaz’s improvement: “He’s starting to get in a little bit of a rhythm,” Mattingly said during the first week of Spring Training.

But from there, Diaz’s downturn at the plate was dramatic. A familiar issue with strikeouts surfaced as he struggled through a prolonged hitless streak.

Isan’s double on March 8thagainst the Cardinals proved to be as his last hit of the Spring. He finished Grapefruit League action going 0-for-24 with 10 strikeouts and just five walks from there.

Miami’s general manager, Kim Ng, acknowledged Diaz’s approach and praised his defense during the slump.

“Isan’s been a guy that, he’s put himself in a lot of good counts,” Ng said. “Hasn’t quite gotten the results that you’d like to see. I think some of that’s just been bad luck, and I think he’s hit the ball hard. And so, you probably aren’t gonna see it show up in the numbers and the statistics, but he has done a good job at second base out in the field.”

There was some bad luck mixed in there, and some questionable scoring decisions to be sure, but the plate production just did not develop.

Diaz’s strikeout rate ballooned to 30.9 percent this Spring. During his run with the Marlins in 2019, Diaz fanned at a 29.4 percent clip over 201 plate appearances. For his pro career thus far, he’s posted a 26 percent K-rate and a 13 percent walk rate.

What’s more, our own Craig Mish notes sources explained to him that Diaz lacked intensity and focus as Spring Training rolled on. He appeared too passive at the plate, and while his game preparation was acceptable, it was not at the level to win an everyday job in the big leagues.

Couple that information with the surge in production from Chisholm late in Grapefruit League action, Diaz’s fate seemed sealed.

“There are many players that have come up to the big leagues, struggled, gone down to Triple-A and just prepare themselves,” Ng said last week. She explained the odd man out of this battle would be sent down so they could “get their reps, get their at-bats, work on their game planning.”

Ng went on to say players in Triple-A need to be prepared for whenever the call comes and said: “We look forward to seeing Isan back [in the majors] at some point this year.”

Mattingly revealed on Monday that Diaz will work primarily at second base at the alternate site in Jacksonville, but also would take grounders at third base. Diaz received some work at third base at the alternate site last year, and, if he’s going to make it back to the Show, he may need to add that positional versatility to his game.

Isan’s Winding Road to the Show

Diaz’s journey to the Majors has been a long, winding road, and the path to return may feature more twists and turns.

Born in Puerto Rico, Diaz moved to the US at the age of four, settling with his family in Springfield, Massachusetts. Isan’s standout high school career earned him a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, an opportunity he’d forego after being selected in the second round, 70th overall, of the 2014 Major League Baseball draftby the Arizona Diamondbacks.

During his Rookie League season in 2014, Isan struggled. He managed just a .187 batting average with three homeruns and 21 RBI with 56 strikeouts over 49 games. But in what would become a theme for Diaz, he bounced back the next season.

In 2015, still in Rookie League, Diaz exploded for a .360 average, with 13 homers, 51 RBI and a 1.076 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) over 68 games. He lowered his strikeout-rate to 20.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent the previous season. He struck out just nine more times over an additional 100 plate appearances.

That sort of improvement would typify Diaz’s progression through the minors. But Diaz found himself as part of a trade package to Milwaukee. With the Brewers, he put together such a solid 2016 that he earned the franchise’s Minor League Player of the Year award.

Unfortunately, though, his 2017 season saw the return of strikeout troubles and inconsistencies at the plate. A prospect who’d ranked as high as MLB’s No. 59 overall, according to Baseball Prospectus, soon shifted to another squad via trade.

Diaz came to the Marlins as part of the infamous Christian Yelichdeal, heading to Miami with Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison and Jordan Yamamoto.

Isan entered the Marlins system as a highly touted second baseman of the future. He topped out as the No. 9 overall prospect for Miami, according to Baseball America. And although he underwhelmed in 2018, bouncing between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans, his 2019 season turned heads.

As a member of the New Orleans Baby Cakes in 2019, Diaz slashed .305/.395/.578 with 26 home runs, 21 doubles and 70 RBIs. That production led to Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star berths, a Futures Game selection and the Marlins Minor League Player of the Year award.

All of this ultimately set up arguably the Marlins’ highlight of the year, when Isan took New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom deep during a doubleheader. The moment taking place during an on-screen interview with his father will forever be fan favorite.

Unfortunately, that momentum did not carry through the rest of the season. He finished 2019 with the Marlins hitting just .173, with a .566 OPS. He connected on five homers and knocked in 23 runs but struck out in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances.

Based on his track record, many assumed 2020 would be a breakout year, but it wasn’t. COVID-19 complicated matters for MLB and, after just two games, Diaz opted out. With the nation, and the Marlins specifically, in the throes of the pandemic, people understood his personal decision.

Diaz would return to the team late in the season but found little rhythm before a groin injury ended his year. He went just 4-for-22 (.182) over his seven-game stint. After healing, Diaz made a brief appearance in the Puerto Rican Winter League with Criollos de Caguas but played in just four games before returning to the States.

“Having the time off,” Diaz said last September, “I was able to sit down with my parents, which is what helped me get back to where I am—remembering the positive stuff that has happened in my career, getting back to the reason I started playing, and finding the love for the game.”

What’s Next

Diaz needs to demonstrate that his 2019 numbers were no fluke. His focus should continue to be putting together solid at-bats, but those at-bats also need to be productive. The strikeout rate must come down if he is ever going to be an everyday player at the Major League level.

“With Isan, we’ve always liked his swing,” Mattingly said. “He’s a strong kid, and he can use the whole field.”

The Marlins, Mattingly included, have long lauded Diaz as the second baseman of the future. But recent struggles mean there might be other options for Miami moving forward. Though the Marlins don’t have another pure second base prospect in their Top-30, the other middle infielders include Jose Devers, Nasim Nunezand Jose Salas.

Diaz possesses plus raw power and a sweet swing that echoes Robinson Cano, a player Diaz identified in 2016 as someone he models his game after. Interestingly, in that same interview, Isan admitted Derek Jeter, the Marlins current CEO, was his favorite player growing up.

“I used to watch the Yankees when I was young,” Diaz said in the 2016 interview. “I was a big Yankees guy. My favorite player was [Derek] Jeter. Me and my dad always used to talk about his class, how he used to play the game. I try to emulate that part.”

There’s no doubt Diaz carries himself with class and he even played shortstop in high school before shifting to his current position as a pro. But should his pro career continue as a Marlin, now that he’s lost this position battle, there are real questions he needs to answer.

There’s no doubt Diaz’s disappointment runs deep, a similar feeling among some in the organization, but this opportunity allows him to regroup and refocus in readiness for his next call up.

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