Last year, Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz made history: he became the first player to lie about his age and claim that he was older than he actually he was. The reason was simple: baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement dictates that a player has to be at least 23 years old with at least three years of experience in a foreign league to be exempt from the international free agent spending cap. Diaz was only 22 years of age, so he had an incentive to lie. It did not work out as he was discovered and made ineligible to sign until February 19, 2014. But now he is back on the market and waiting for an offer that suits him. He has not received one. We have heard as much about teams not being interested in Diaz as teams actually pursuing him. Are we getting to the point where a team like the Rays that could have a chance to sign him?
Last December, we heard that the Rays were interested in Diaz. It is not crazy to think that they could get involved again in light of how his stock has dipped in recent days. The New York Yankees worked out Diaz and fellow Cuban Odrisamer Despaigne and did not make him an offer. The Minnesota Twins are no longer an option. And adding to the fun, a scout told Peter Gammons that Diaz projects as more of a utility player than a shortstop moving forward and may lack the defensive chops for shortstop. Diaz is reportedly asking for five years and $25 million, but we have to think he is going to end up with significantly less than that. However, why should the Rays even target Diaz if his age is not the only thing perceived differently about him compared to when he first defected?
Aledmys Diaz stands out as a middle infielder with excellent plate discipline and solid power. For his Cuban career, he managed 114-135 strikeout to walk ratio including an incredible 23-58 mark in 2011. You have to wonder how much of those ratios came from patience and how much came from pitch recognition, but at the very least, Diaz will not be a hacker at the plate moving forward. On the power front, he slammed 12 homers in 270 at-bats in his final season in Cuba in 2012, and while he will not be able to able to maintain that proportion of home runs, double-digit homers per season in the major leagues could be realistic. The other side of Diaz’s power is that he does not stand out for great bat speed and he will need to prove himself against livelier arms. Diaz’s defensive profile is in question because of his speed, and despite solid hands and a very good arm, he might be a better fit for second base. Nevertheless, he has a good first step and having a player with his offensive profile who has any chance to stick at shortstop is always valuable. Diaz’s best fit moving forward is likely a fringe-starter at second base or an offense-minded utility player, and he may need a year or two in the minor leagues to get there. No team is going to give $5 million a year for a player like that. But if his price come down to more reasonable levels, even a small-market team could view it as a worthy investment.
The Tampa Bay Rays spent quite a bit more money on free agents this offseason, and they exceeded their international spending limit in 2012 to land several top prospects. However, players like Aledmys Diaz, international players 23 years or older, are an inefficiency that the Rays have yet to exploit. The international players not eligible for the spending caps give the Rays an opportunity to spend just a couple million per year on a potential big league piece for the near future. There would be risk in that, but the potential upside is worth the gamble. If Diaz’s demands go down to that point, expect the Rays to get involved.