Saturday, January 1, 2011

Matt Diaz

Goodbye, Lastings Milledge, hello Matt Diaz.

Milledge, John Bowker and Ryan Doumit formed such a formidable trio in right field at the end of last season that the powers that be flipped LH Garrett Jones from first base and inked RH Diaz to form the 2011 two-headed right field monster.

Diaz, 32 (he'll turn 33 in March) was born in Oregon and raised in Florida. After a stellar career at Lakeland's Santa Fe Catholic High, he took his game to Florida state.

He became a two-year starter for the Seminoles and appeared in two CWS. Diaz made earned Freshman of the Year honors from the Sporting News in 1998. The next season he was named an All-America by the American Baseball Coaches Association and the National Baseball College Writers' Association.

During his brief two year career at FSU, Diaz batted .384 with 43 HR and was named an NCAA Regional MVP and to the College World Series’ All Tournament Team.

Tampa Bay selected him in the 17th round of the 1999 draft. He wasn't considered very toolsy, was kinda bulky physically, and for a guy that was drafted for his bat, he had a funny swing. So he signed quickly with the Devil Rays and jumped right into his pro career.

He started for the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades, and his first pro season was nothing to particularly write home about. Diaz hit .245/.284/.351 with one HR and 20 RBI in 54 games. He was such a free swinger that he got hit by a pitch as often as he walked, a half dozen times each.

Still, he got a nice boot upstairs to the High A St. Petersburg Devil Rays, and his slash looked better: .270/.305/.385 with 6 HR and 53 RBI in 106 games. Same odd pattern with the HBP and BBs, though - he collected eleven of each in his first full pro season.

In 2001, he got another year to season in High A with the Bakersfield Blaze, and had a breakout year with the bat. Diaz's line was .328/.370/.510 with 17 HR ansd 81 RBI in 131 games. Heck, he finally drew more walks than bruises; his eye had to be improving.

It was a mixed bag for Tampa Bay evaluators - although Bakersfield played in a notorious pitcher's park, Diaz was 23, long in the tooth for that level, and his glove was iffy as he made 10 outfield errors. His AA performance would be more telling.

He put together a solid 2002 with the Class AA Orlando Rays, hitting .274/.337/.408 with 10 HR and 50 RBI in 122 games. He stayed there next year, and tore the league up with a slash of .383/.444/.542 with 5 HR and 41 RBI in 60 games.

That offensive outburst earned him a promotion to the Class AAA Durham Bulls, and he kept on keeping on, batting .328/.382/.518 with 8 HR and 45 RBI in 67 games. It was quite a season; combined, he hit .354/.412/.529 with 13 HR and 86 RBI in 126 games.

Did he get a shot at the show? Yep. The Rays gave him ten September at-bats and sent him back to AAA to start 2004.

He didn't mope, but just kept beating up pitchers with Durham. His 2004 slash was .332/.377/.571 with 21 HR and and 93 RBI in 134 games. He became a minor-league All-Star for the third time in the past four seasons. Tampa gave him another September call-up; he got 24 plate appearances this time.

The late-blooming Diaz was behind Jose Cruz, Damon Hollins and Rob Fick on Tampa's OF list, and was released after the 2004 season despite killing the ball at AAA. The KC Royals signed him as a free agent. No where to go but up, right? Well...

He earned a bench spot out of camp, and actually started 17 games and had a .281 BA with 10 extra base hits and 12 RBI in a mostly backup role. An oblique injury in June landed him on the DL, and it took him until July to heal and finish rehabbing. With 32 games missed, KC sent him down to AAA Omaha. Diaz again crushed the ball there, hitting .371/.408/.649 with 14 HR and 56 RBI in 65 games.

At his age, Diaz was beginning to pick up the patina of a AAAA player. He hit for high average with very good gap power and some pop ever since his AA days, but his freeswinging ways and questionable glove seemed to doom him to being a minor league legend.

But his patience was about to pay off. Atlanta GM John Schuerholz sent minor league RHP Ricardo Rodriguez to the Royals, and Diaz's days on the farm were over.

He got into 124 games with the Braves in 2006, and put up a slash of .327/.364/.475 with 15 7 HR and 32 RBI in 297 at-bats. At one point, he tied the MLB record by banging out 10 straight hits, including back-to-back four hit games. The 28 year old looked like he finally found his path to the show, oddly enough for a contender after cellar-dwellers gave up on him.

One year, of course, doesn't mean a thing. So in 2007, when he put up a line of .338/.368/.497 with 12 HR and 45 RBI in 358 AB, it looked like his foothold on a MLB job was a little more secure.

In 2008, Diaz started season as the everyday left fielder. But he started of hitting just .244, and then he suffered a strained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He went to the chop shop in late May, and played in only one game after surgery, pretty much blowing his big chance to break into the line up and perhaps jeopardizing his big league career.

Butinstead of throwing in his hand, Diaz bounced back with a strong year. His line was .313/.390/.488 with 13 HR and 58 RBI and a career-high 425 at-bats. In fact, he claimed the everyday left field job after the All-Star break when Jeff Francoeur was sent to the Mets and Garrett Anderson didn't work out as his replacement. The only problem he had was toward the end of the season when a thumb infection required some minor surgery, but it would unfortunately linger.

In 2010, the thumb bothered him from April on; in May he had surgery on it again and was out until July. He had a miserable year, hitting just .250 and managing only 224 at-bats.

The 32 year old outfielder was non-tendered by the Braves, who feared that the $2.55M he made in 2010 would shoot upward in his final year of arbitration. Diaz became a free agent, and a pretty popular one, considering his spotty MLB career.

Several national news outlets speculated that he had 10 or 11 teams interested in him, among them Seattle, Arizona, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Boston, the Yankees, Texas and Pittsburgh. And hey - the Buccos got their man.

They reached agreement on a two-year, $4.25 million deal without an option, covering Diaz's last arb and first free agency year.

Why Pittsburgh? Diaz had heard Nate McLouth talk fondly about Pittsburgh while they were teammates. Ranger players he talked to while team shopping spoke well of new skipper Hurdle. And Neal Huntington and the FO sold him on "the plan" which is supposed to bear fruit in 2012 (maybe they'll let the fans in on it next).

In Diaz, the Pirates get a guy that feasts on lefties, with a career .335 average, .373 OBP, and .533 slugging percentage against southpaws. If the platoon holds up, he should get 400 or so at-bats.

He's a free swinger who rarely walks, but makes up for it with a high average and BABIP that's well above average because of his line drive tendencies despite his awkward looking swing. Diaz can hit anything, especially fastball-changeup combinations.

And his fielding, which has been bad-mouthed, is just about average by every measurement we can find. His UZR/150 in 2010 was 0.2, and while it's true he doesn't have much range, he does take direct routes to the ball, and a center fielder like McCutch will help him on the gappers.

He's also an overachiever, a hard worker, and a great clubhouse and community guy by all tales. So if he can match his career norms, he'll have the cred to be a veteran leader and mentor to a still young crew of Buccaneers.

There is the downside, too: Diaz will turn 33 shortly before the 2011 season starts, and that's about when a player typically begins to decline in production. He also seems to have a tendency toward nagging injuries that drag out; it may be a stretch for Pittsburgh to get two healthy seasons out of him.

Diaz isn't the home run hitter the Pirates sought for right, though he does have a history of pounding out doubles (his .465 lifetime slugging % would put him third on the 2010 team). And though he's had a shot at being an everyday outfielder, the splits scream platoon player.

Still, a platoon of Diaz and Garrett Jones in right has the potential to both shore up the fielding and vastly improve the hitting. We just hope that Clint Hurdle doesn't take a page out of JR's book and keep pounding round pegs into square holes.

And there's always the chance that he's just another example of the Pirate FO bringing in a vet to dump for prospects at the deadline, although his two-year deal might delay that very real possibility until 2012.

In his personal life, Diaz is a born-again Christian, and he and his wife Leslee have three children, Nathan, Anna, and Matthew. The family makes their winter home in Florida. And for those fans of Christian rock, his brother is singer/songwriter Jonny Diaz.

So Matt Diaz seems like a good head and a good risk to cover the corner until the Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo and Robbie Grossman outfield prospect class, none sure things, wend their way to PNC Park.

1 comment:

WilliamJPellas said...

You say Diaz had an infection in his thumb? Wow. Talk about a Bizarro World injury. So, he had this infection for, basically, a year and a half? I dunno if you've seen other stories like this one, Ron, but Tom Brady is just one among many other athletes who have really been bothered by infections of one kind and another. Seems to me Payton Manning had one, too, though both he and Brady had theirs after surger and from your story it appears Diaz just developed his apart from any operation, then had to have one anyway to correct the infection?