ST. PETERSBURG — 2023 always will be known to Yandy Diaz for the birth of his first child, even if over the nearly four months since Yandy Jared was born the proud papa claims to have not yet changed a diaper.
More than Diaz’s first-time election to the American League All-Star team, and as the starting first baseman at that.
More than the American League batting title he won, the first in Rays history, and the team and personal record .330 he hit to do so.
More than the career-high 22 home runs he hit and handful of other individual and team accomplishments he piled up, including a .410 on-base percentage that was second in the league and in Rays annals.
And more than the Silver Slugger he was awarded last week as the league’s best offensive first baseman, just the fourth Ray to do so in their 26 seasons.
“I’m very happy for a lot of things,” Diaz said after the announcement via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Some very beautiful things happened to me this year, especially the birth of my son. And I think the Silver Slugger is just an extra prize after (that).”
Thursday, Diaz is headed for another significant accomplishment, a top-10 finish in the American League MVP voting. He has a chance to be the first Ray to finish as high as fifth, as Evan Longoria was sixth in 2010 and 2013.
He will have a place in the conversation with the game’s biggest stars, such as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, Rangers’ Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, and Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez.
“To have your name on the list with any of those guys, it’s definitely an honor,” Diaz said.
“I’m very proud of the efforts that you put in in order to be named on that list. Those are names that you consider animals in the league, that are really good players. Very proud to be on that list.”
A step forward
Diaz, 32, certainly earned it with the significant step forward he took at this advanced stage of his career.
The signs of change showed up in spring training, a couple of weeks after Diaz signed the first multiyear contract of his career, a three-year pact for $24 million, with a $12 million option for 2026.
It gave Diaz financial security, important considering his background of escaping Cuba (after being jailed four times) at age 21 to get the chance to eventually come to the United States. He signed with Cleveland for $300,000 in September 2013, giving him an opportunity to play his way to the majors.
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The multiyear contract also provided Diaz comfort in his role with the Rays, with whom he’d been since a December 2018 trade. Team officials noted he seemed more relaxed, confident and outgoing. He took on something of a leadership role, one befitting a veteran player on a team that made the playoffs in each of his four years on it.
“From the time we acquired him, each year he’s become more comfortable. He’s become more trusting. The relationships have strengthened,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “I think that contract extension did wonders for him. It was an action that helped him feel like we didn’t just say we wanted him here — we did something to show it.
“Just watching Yandy continue to grow and to develop and to be one of those people within the clubhouse that has become much more of a leader, of an example, it’s just been a really rewarding experience that extends well beyond just this season. And excited to see that continue moving forward.”
The feeling was mutual, as evidenced by his teammates holding a “Dress Like Yandy” day (and how warmly he reacted to it) and hiring a band to follow him around during a pregame workout on his birthday.
Diaz handled a move across the diamond to become the primary first baseman with no issues and settled comfortably into the leadoff spot. Or, at least as comfortable as a 6-foot-2, well-chiseled corner infielder with Popeye biceps can.
Driven to improve
Manager Kevin Cash said he was most impressed with how driven Diaz was to improve.
“He challenged himself to be even a better hitter than he already was,” Cash said. “ ... The guy just got a three-year contract for what he had done, and for him to show a commitment in spring training and early on, even when I think early on he was hitting home runs but he was hitting about .260 (and) that drove him crazy.
“But he committed to it, and with the work of our hitting coaches, Chad (Mottola) and that group, he stayed at it.”
Former Rays general manager Peter Bendix, who left to take over the Marlins, was struck by how consistently Diaz delivered in key situations (batting .365 with runners in scoring position, second in the AL) and in providing a heartbeat to the lineup, resulting in his unanimous selection as team MVP.
”The fact that he was consistently at the top of his game all season long,” Bendix said at the postseason media session. “It felt like he never went into a slump, and I think the numbers even bear that out, that he was just consistently hitting balls hard and consistently getting base hits, consistently taking his walks and hitting for power.
“He set the tone at the top of our lineup. I think he was a big reason why others in the lineup were able to have a little pressure off of them and perform at their best level, too. And the fact that he did that all season long without really missing a beat, that was really impressive.”
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