The upside (and downside) of the Rays’ trade for Yandy Diaz

The Rays traded away Jake Bauers, thought to be a key piece of their future. Said Bauers: "“I hope it all works out for them. I know it’s all going to work out for me.''
The Rays say they acquired Yandy Diaz from Cleveland Thursday for his right-handed bat and position versatility. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
The Rays say they acquired Yandy Diaz from Cleveland Thursday for his right-handed bat and position versatility. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
Published Dec. 13, 2018|Updated Dec. 14, 2018

LAS VEGAS – There is plenty confusing about the Rays' latest big deal.

They spoke again of their love and appreciation for first baseman Jake Bauers. And they've always shown how they value hanging on to their money.

Yet Thursday morning they packaged Bauers, the sweet swinger and slick fielder who seemed a key part of their future, and $5 million to get Yandy Diaz, a promising but unproven corner infielder from the Indians, who may or may not replace him at first base.

And that was apart from the incorrect reports that they also were getting slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who went from Cleveland to Seattle in the three-team deal that sent Carlos Santana back to the Indians.

So what was clear, as the Rays' unusually busy winter meetings concluded?

That they had better be right that Diaz, a 27-year-old from Cuba who's played only 88 games in the majors, will be a big hit.

"The key to this deal for us is how we feel about Yandy Diaz,'' senior VP Chaim Bloom said.

They like him because he swings right-handed, whereas they still felt lefty-heavy with Bauers. That he can play third and first, and outfield if needed, further expanding the versatility of their roster. That he is a polished hitter who rips the ball as hard as some of the best in the game, with the potential to develop big-time home run power (having hit only 27 in five pro seasons).

"We think there's a lot of upside there,'' Bloom said.

But that's what they said, and we all thought, about Bauers, too.

He was considered, along with Willy Adames, a central part of the core of young players the Rays brought through the minors together and touted as the group to lead them to sustained success.

Were the Rays spooked by the way Bauers struggled after an impressive opening month following his June debut, hitting .244 with an .852 OPS in his first 48 games and .150/.520 his last 48?

Bloom insisted not, that they were confident he'd rebound and still think he will be an impact player.

"Jake's pretty special to us and our high opinion of him doesn't change,'' Bloom said. "He's a competitor who can hit and he's a pretty good defensive first baseman. We like him a lot. This was one (deal) where there was no high-fiving, just something we thought really made sense for us going forward. The Indians are getting a hell of a player. It's going to be fun to watch his career progress.''

Bauers said he wasn't sure what to think after getting an early morning call from GM Erik Neander with the shocking news.

"Extremely mixed," Bauers said. "Confused, maybe a little bit, is a good word.

"I felt like what we had the makings of was going to be something special this year and obviously I was excited to be a part of it. So I was confused on why I didn't fit into that plan any more. But also excited to fit into someone else's plan with an opportunity to play into the postseason for the foreseeable future and that's exciting."

The clubhouse vibe and energy provided by the young core players was considered a factor in the Rays 90-win finish last year, and their potential to rise to contender status in 2019. In dealing Bauers, Bloom acknowledged "obviously there was going to be a little bit of shock for the guys who played together for a while to experience that.''

There also are legit questions about the impact on the field, first of which is who will play first base, given they'd already dispatched C.J. Cron, who had 61 games there last year.

It could be Diaz, though he's better at third. Ji-Man Choi, who has experience but not great reviews. Another infielder, such as projected third baseman Matt Duffy or Brandon Lowe, the 2018 rookie with the impressive swing but no clear path for at-bats. Or maybe someone to be acquired. Also a factor is the potential in-season arrival of one of their promising prospects, 2018 top minor-leaguer Nate Lowe or Joe McCarthy.

Bloom said the Rays, who Wednesday agreed to a two-year, $30 million contract with pitcher Charlie Morton to be announced next week, didn't consider the Diaz deal the end of their off-season, that they were "still open" to adding another hitter, though not necessarily a first baseman.

High end, that could be J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins, Santana (Indians), Jose Martinez (Cardinals), Nelson Cruz off the free-agent list or someone else. Encarnacion may not stay in Seattle, but it sure didn't sound like he was he was coming to the Rays, related to this deal, as several national writers reported, or any other.

Diaz, speaking from Miami on a translated conference call, said he was "very surprised" at the trade and "excited" for the new opportunity, which will be expanded from what he had in Cleveland. He was the opening day third baseman in 2017, but spent time that year and 2018 in Triple-A, posting a  .283 average and .727 OPS and one homer in 299 plate appearances with the Indians.

Intriguing, though, is that he ranked 19th in the majors over 2017-18 in StatCast's hard-hit rate, with 47.6 percent of his batted balls at 95 mph or harder, though also had the 25th highest ground ball rate.

No surprise, he is working on elevating the ball. "There isn't much I was planning on changing,'' he said. "I'm going to continue being an average hitter and contact hitter, but I want to have more extra base hits.''

The Rays also got reliever Cole Sulser, a 28-year-old righty who split last season between Double- and Triple-A, going 8-4, 3.86 with 95 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings. The $5 million they put in the deal technically went to the Mariners (with GM Jerry DiPoto working from a hospital bed due to blood clots in his lungs), though they sent $6 million to the Indians, also receiving their competitive balance draft pick.

Bloom said the Rays feel they now have a better and more balanced club.

"I hope it all works out for them,'' Bauers said. "I know it's all going to work out for me."

Meet Yandy Diaz

Age: 27

Born: Sagua la Grande, Villa Clara, Cuba

Lives: Miami

Ht: 6-2 Wt: 185

Bats: Right Throws: Right

Background: Played parts of three seasons in Villa Clara and also for Cuban national team. … Defected from Cuba in 2013, having reportedly been jailed after two unsuccessful attempts. … Went to the Dominican Republic and then Haiti before signing with Indians in Sept. 2013 for $300,000. … Likes playing soccer. … Father Jorge Díaz had also defected played in Texas minor-league system. … Will be 11th Cuban born player in Rays history.

Career: Started with Indians at Class A in 2014, was Double-A All-Star in 2015 and Triple-A International League Rookie of the Year in 2016, hitting .325 with a .399 on-base percentage, and also chosen for the All-Star Futures Game. … Made big-league debut as Indians opening day third baseman in 2017 but split last two seasons between majors and Triple-A. .. Posted .293 average and .409 on-base percentage for Columbus in 2018. … Has played third, first, leftfield and DH in majors. … In 88 big-league games (299 plate appearances), has hit .283 with .361 on-base percentage, .366 slugging percentage, 13 doubles, 3 triples, 1 homer, 28 RBIs, 32 walks, 54 strikeouts.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.