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With Ji-Man Choi gone, Yandy Diaz is first in line to play first base for Rays

Notebook | As Diaz reported to camp Monday, there was a stiff glove in his locker for his new assignment.
 
Ji-man Choi, right, is no longer with the Rays, and Yandy Diaz, left, will be taking over Choi's spot at first base.
Ji-man Choi, right, is no longer with the Rays, and Yandy Diaz, left, will be taking over Choi's spot at first base. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Feb. 21, 2023|Updated Feb. 21, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA — When Yandy Diaz filled in at first base the last few years, he would borrow a teammate’s glove, usually from Ji-Man Choi.

The new, yet-to-be-broken-in Wilson mitt sitting in Diaz’s locker when he reported to camp Monday was an indication of how things have changed.

Choi, after a four-year run as the Rays’ primary first baseman, was traded in November to the Pirates. And Diaz, after spending the majority of his first four years with the Rays manning third base, is moving across the diamond.

“He’ll play first,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s going to play first base a lot.”

Without having or acquiring an obvious replacement, and choosing to not shift Brandon Lowe from second base, the Rays decided Diaz was their best option. And it’s a way to potentially improve their defense at third by platooning Isaac Paredes and sure-handed Taylor Walls at the hot corner.

Diaz, 31, said he understood the assignment and that he has felt increasingly better at first with more reps, including making 66 starts in 2021 when Choi was hurt.

“Early on, it was always a little bit of work,” said Diaz, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think I put in a little bit of time and effort; but I think splitting between third and first over the last few years I got a lot more comfortable there recently.”

Diaz had more to be happy about, recently signing a three-year, $24 million extension and sharing the news that he and his wife and expecting their first child in July.

Viva Mexico for Arozarena

Rays outfielders Randy Arozarena, left, Harold Ramirez, center, and Jose Siri wait their turn at a recent practice.
Rays outfielders Randy Arozarena, left, Harold Ramirez, center, and Jose Siri wait their turn at a recent practice. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Outfielder Randy Arozarena is excited to live his dream of participating in March’s World Baseball Classic.

And he made it sound like an easy to decision to play for Mexico, where he lived after defecting from Cuba in June 2015, rather than his native land as a few other big-leaguers are doing.

“Obviously to play for Cuba would have been ideal,” he said, via Navarro. “But obviously after a while I’ve learned the rules and everything of the country itself, a lot of the guys that have escaped, myself and Yandy as well, they don’t really treat us very well.”

With friends and family (including his mom) still in Mexico, Arozarena said wearing the tri colors of green, red and white was “a very easy decision.” And he will be joined by Rays mates Jonathan Aranda and Paredes. Arozarena added that he will “always represent” being from Cuba.

Welcome, campers

Cash said he spoke for “about 30 seconds” of a 16-minute, largely introductory team meeting to mark the start of full squad workouts: “The message was, ‘We start working toward something today.’ And, basically, let’s continue being good teammates, supporting each other and just to go out and have a good spring. Very simple.”

Miscellany

Top prospects Taj Bradley and Mason Montgomery are among the pitchers scheduled to throw on the first day of live batting practice. The team is installing pitch clocks and bringing in minor-league umpires for the sessions so players can start getting used to the new rules. … Though Major League Baseball is allowing teams to experiment this spring with having pitchers also wear a PitchCom transmitter (on their belt) to “call” pitches, Cash said the Rays have no plans to do so.

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