MILWAUKEE -- Aledmys Diaz's arrival in American professional baseball became a lesson in capitalism.
Before he became a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, reports suggested Diaz would command a heftier contract than those signed by the other star infielders who had recently defected from Cuba. He didn’t. After the Los Angeles Dodgers handed out $53 million combined for Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, Diaz’s market crumbled. He wasn’t in tip-top condition when he tried out after 18 months away from the field in Mexico City. Interest proved more tepid than originally forecast.
Diaz signed for a fraction of what those players got: $8 million over four years. He had two immediate reactions. The first was a sense of relief and a desire to get the next phase of his career started after competing for scant material reward in Cuba all those years.
“When you earn fifty bucks a month, you know, you’re not really worried about the money,” Diaz said.
The next feeling, though, was a nagging sense that teams had valued those other players more highly than they valued him. For many professional athletes, contracts are a way of keeping score, as well as a way of safeguarding their family’s future for a generation or two or three.
“When you compare a guy like me to guys I played with in Cuba, I had better numbers and they received, like, $30 million or $25 million,” Diaz said. “It is what it is. It was the market at that point and I just had to take it.”
The Cardinals were thrilled to be standing there as Diaz’s market fell apart. They brought him in for a private tryout at their camp in Jupiter, Florida, and general manager John Mozeliak was among those watching. So was manager Mike Matheny. Cardinals scouts Moises Rodriguez and Matt Slater were higher on Diaz than many team’s scouts.
“Both guys came back with positive reports on him, but I was just a little uncertain of the market,” Mozeliak recalled. “Look, a lot of guys were getting between $16 [million] and $30 million, and it was just hard for me to see that. I wasn’t calibrated on what it should look like.”
Two years later, the Cardinals’ signing looks like a bargain, if not highway robbery. Diaz is a .315-hitting shortstop who leads all major league shortstops in OPS and is turning into an adequate fielder with above-average upside. This season, the Dodgers designated Guerrero for assignment and suspended Arruebarrena for failing to honor his contract while he was at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Not that the intervening two years were a straight march from bargain signing to major league All-Star for Diaz. The Cardinals grew disillusioned enough with his production last season that they took him off their 40-man roster, leaving him exposed to waiver claims by other teams. With $4.5 million left on Diaz’s contract, the Cardinals took an informed gamble and it paid off. Nobody claimed him and the move delivered a message, intended or not.
It was time to make a move or his career was going to stall, perhaps permanently. After trying out three times in a week for teams, signing and then reporting to spring training and going through the rigmarole of taking about 100 ground balls a day, his right shoulder had become inflamed and sore by midseason. Diaz was mindful of the long minor league season and was trying to nurse his shoulder through the schedule. Being taken off the roster inspired a more go-for-broke mentality.
"After that, I just told myself, ‘OK, if you get another injury, it’s OK, but you have to let it go,’ " Diaz said. " ‘Just go out there and compete.' "
Diaz has competed ferociously since. He batted .380 in a 14-game stint at Triple-A Memphis last September. He had a .912 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, upstaging better-hyped prospects. That would become a theme that has carried over this season.
The Cardinals had no intention of making Diaz their everyday shortstop this spring, but Jhonny Peralta tore a thumb ligament in early March and the man they signed to replace him, Ruben Tejada, strained a quadriceps on the last day of the spring schedule.
Diaz, 25, stepped into the void and has become the Cardinals’ latest example of a young player taking an opportunity and running with it. Now, they view him as their starting shortstop of the present and, they hope, the next generation of Cardinals baseball. They already have moved veterans Peralta and Matt Carpenter to other positions to accommodate him.
“Aledmys gets an opportunity and he did with it what you hope young players can do from Day 1. He got it going,” Mozeliak said. “When you have success fast, I think it gives you confidence to help you later. He’s really been able to take that first big step and let it grow.”
Diaz didn’t have a great reputation for fielding in the minor leagues, and he did nothing early this season to change that appraisal. He made nine errors in his first 36 games. He has better range than Peralta, 34, and he has cleaned up the lapses of focus as the season progressed. Diaz has six errors in his past 51 games. Advanced metrics rate Diaz as a slightly below-average fielder, a big improvement over where he stood in early June.
“I think he’s better than maybe we gave him credit for, and I also like the fact he’s improving as we go,” Mozeliak said.
Not long ago, ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield wrote about Cleveland Indians’ All-Star Francisco Lindor and mentioned a “golden age of young shortstops” in the major leagues. Schoenfield mentioned Lindor, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Corey Seager, with Addison Russell and Trevor Story “a notch behind those four.” None of those players have swung the bat with the impact Diaz has. Then again, he is two years older than the oldest of that group, Story and Bogaerts.
Asked if Diaz belonged in the conversation about the brilliant young shortstops impacting the game, Matheny said, "Absolutely. He came in quietly, unlike the others.”
Sometimes, where you start determines how people perceive you. It doesn’t determine how you finish.