PORT CHARLOTTE — Yandy Diaz tells the story almost matter-of-factly, but of course it’s anything but, providing not only details of how he got to the majors, but what it took to get there.
And a glimpse of why the Rays gave up so much to get him.
The first time Diaz tried to leave his native Cuba for the opportunity to get signed by a big-league team, he was caught before making it from his Sagua la Grande hometown to the small boat, arrested and thrown into jail for a three-week stint.
“That was sad,’’ Diaz, 27, explained through translator Manny Navarro. “A sad moment. But I knew I had to keep moving on.’’
Twice more Diaz, accompanied by childhood friend and pitcher Leandro Linares, tried to get out. And twice they were again foiled and locked up, three more weeks at a time.
“Since I tried several times, I wouldn’t be able to play any more in Cuba,’’ Diaz said. “I didn’t know how long (we’d be in for). It could have been years.’’
Diaz remained undeterred, making arrangements akin to human trafficking, to try again.
“At the time there really wasn’t much opportunity financially or in baseball in Cuba,’’ he explained. “So that was our motivation, to keep on going and keep on going. Fortunately, the fourth time we made it.’’
The sharks Diaz saw in the water during the 12-hour treacherous escape to the Dominican Republic on what was more a motorized raft added to the fear factor.
But the plan, which included establishing residency in Haiti, eventually worked.
Workouts headlined by Cuban pitcher Dalier Hinojosa got scouts interested. And eventually got Diaz, then a 22-year-old playing shortstop but more impressive with the bat, signed for $300,000 by the Indians, team president Chris Antonetti saying his “ability to control the strike zone” stood out even then. (Linares also signed with Cleveland for $950,000 but has yet to get above Double-A).
Diaz’s path from there has been a test in a different way.
He stair-stepped his way through the minors, made the Indians’ 2017 roster and started at third opening day. But he never got an extended opportunity on their star-studded team, splitting the season and 2018 shuffling between Cleveland and Triple-A Columbus, understandably frustrated.
The numbers Diaz posted were impressive, notably more walks than strikeouts over his five minor-league seasons, 328-322 with a .412 on-base percentage.
Also, intriguing is how hard he hit the ball and, related, how rarely he hit it over the fence, especially given biceps that bulge as big as any in baseball.
Current Rays who teamed with or against Diaz in the minors tell tales.
Joey Wendle saw Diaz use a bat weighted with pennies taped around the barrel in batting practice and “still crush balls as far I could hit with a regular bat.’’ Bench coach Matt Quatraro remembered how different Diaz’s batting practice sounded: “That was one of the first things that stood out to me — you’d hear him take BP.’’ Jason Coats took notice of many times Diaz hit the ball on the barrel, and how many jersey seams he challenged. “He’s massive,’’ Coats said. “It’s like they don’t have a jersey that doesn’t look like he’s going to rip it.’’
Also, that despite the hard edges of his muscles he has a soft side, always smiling, respectful, willing to work. “Just a good dude,’’ Christian Arroyo said.
Rays officials saw the potential for Diaz to be an impactful addition to their lineup — an “absolute beast" in the words of one — after incorporating some small adjustments they expect to produce more home runs. (More being relative as he’s hit only one in 265 big-league at-bats.)
And they paid heavily, giving up not only promising first baseman Jake Bauers but also $5 million (more than they’ll pay all but two players) to get Diaz in a three-team deal.
“We sought him,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re excited to finally have him in here.’’
The Rays are asking Diaz to work primarily at first base after spending most of his previous time at third, but otherwise are banking on him being comfortable and relaxed knowing he has a spot on the team.
Diaz is excited by the opportunity, for himself and his family.
His father, Jorge, had previously fled Cuba, played briefly in the minors, and lives near Diaz in Miami. But his mother, Elsa María Fernández, is still in Cuba. Diaz calls her when he can (and sent her videos and the ball from his first big-league hit), hopes to visit her next off-season and one day move her to the States.
Patience should not be a problem.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.