Can Aledmys Diaz be St. Louis Cardinals’ Savior at Shortstop?


The St. Louis Cardinals need to find a starting shortstop with Jhonny Peralta out for the next few months. Is Aledmys Diaz the man for the job?

The St. Louis Cardinals suffered a devastating blow on Monday, as it was announced that shortstop Jhonny Peralta will miss between 2-3 months after sustaining a thumb injury this past weekend. The injury immediately cast the spotlight on the Cardinals’ lack of big-league quality shortstop depth, and now it will be interesting to see who ends up filling in for Peralta until he returns in May or June.

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The early favorite to win the job is 27-year-old Jedd Gyorko, who has a career .236/.293/.395 slash line with 49 homers in 1,426 major-league plate appearances. However, it’s still up in the air as to whether Gyorko has what it takes defensively to play shortstop on an everyday basis. Gyorko’s former team, the San Diego Padres, converted him to shortstop at the big-league level in August of last year, and he went on to play in 29 games over the final six weeks of the season.

According to the metrics, Gyorko wasn’t a good defensive shortstop–FanGraphs credited him for -4 defensive runs saved, a ranking equal to that of Starlin Castro as a shortstop during 2015–but he wasn’t exactly unplayable; in fact, his DRS rating was higher than that of Peralta, who had a -7 for the season. Still, Gyorko’s inexperience at the position–namely, the fact that no manager or front office had trusted him at short since his collegiate days at West Virginia–provides continued doubt about his legitimacy as a major-league shortstop.

That’s where 25-year-old prospect Aledmys Diaz comes into the picture. Diaz, who defected from Cuba and signed with the Cardinals in the spring of 2014, does not yet have any major-league experience, but there’s little doubt that he would be an adequate replacement for Peralta on defense. While splitting his 2015 season between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, Diaz had a range factor per nine innings of 4.51, which would’ve ranked him among the top ten big-league shortstops in that category during 2015. For comparison, his efficiency at short was virtually equivalent to that of Troy Tulowitzki, who also had a 4.51 RF/9 last season.

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Since arriving in the US, Diaz’s issues have come at the plate. After an injury-plagued 2014 season during which he was limited to 47 games, Diaz hit just .235/.292/.344 over his first 67 games of 2015, which disappointed the Cardinals so much that they designated him for assignment on July 8–despite having given him a four-year, $8 million-dollar contract roughly 16 months earlier–to add journeyman first baseman Dan Johnson to the 40-man roster (as fate would have it, Johnson is now trying to establish himself as a knuckleball pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor-league camp).

Something changed for Diaz following the wake-up call from the Cardinals, though. After clearing waivers and being outrighted on July 10, Diaz began to dominate at the plate and has shown no sign of slowing down since. As Bernie Miklasz pointed out at on Tuesday, Diaz hit for a .324/.389/.578 slash line (.967 OPS) with 12 homers in 253 plate appearances between Springfield, Memphis, and the Arizona Fall League after being designated for assignment.

After being added back to the 40-man roster this offseason, Diaz has been fantastic through the first week of spring training. Through his first 17 at-bats, Diaz is hitting .353. He started at short on Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins and went 4-for-4, collecting two doubles and two RBI. Though he has committed an error at short, he has 12 assists at the position through 27 innings and has participated in three double plays. He’s also showcased his versatility, seeing action at second and third base.

Obviously, the odds are still going to remain against Diaz, since he has just 50 Triple-A at-bats, while Gyorko has played three full major-league seasons. The Cardinals could always go out and acquire someone else before the season starts, too, so even if Gyorko proves himself to be wholly incompetent at shortstop, the position isn’t just going to go to Diaz by default. But obviously there’s intrigue with the player who the Cardinals once made a substantial up-front investment in, so don’t discount him as an immediate option at short if he continues to perform well this spring.

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Since Diaz would theoretically still benefit from additional time at Triple-A, seeing as he’s only played 14 games at the minors’ highest level, it wouldn’t make much sense to keep him on the major-league roster and not use him regularly. That sounds like a poor reason to put a player in the starting lineup–in principle, a team’s eight best players should comprise the regular lineup–but Gyorko is going to get his fair share of action throughout the season by serving as the primary backup at three infield positions (as well as serving as a potential option at first base). Thus, since Diaz is pretty clearly the better defensive player of the two, it’d be completely reasonable for the Cardinals to move forward with him as their starting shortstop if he continues to look the part of a big-leaguer at the plate through the rest of the spring. Seeing as 2016 will be Peralta’s 14th major-league season, the Cardinals are going to need to find a shortstop of the future at some point, so perhaps Diaz can take advantage of this opportunity and seize that role.