Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz experienced the gamut of emotions in 2016.
▪ He broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in April and batted .402 in his first 28 games.
▪ He made the National League All-Star team as a rookie in July.
▪ He and his wife, Dayara, welcomed their first child, a son, into the world, on Aug. 5.
▪ He missed all of August and nearly two weeks of September with a broken right thumb.
▪ He suffered through the loss of close friend and countryman Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins pitcher who perished in a boating accident Sept. 25.
Through it all, 26-year-old Diaz stayed on task.
“That’s one of the things I learned as soon as I left Cuba,” Diaz said, who defected in 2012 and signed with the Cardinals on March 9, 2014. “You have to keep your emotions on the same level. Sometimes you have bad moments in your life. Sometimes you have good moments. But you have to stay the same.
“That’s what helped me last year. A lot of things happened in my first year, but I was able to stay calm and enjoy the process.”
The Cardinals certainly enjoyed watching Diaz’s development. He finished with a .300 average, 28 doubles, 17 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .879 OPS in 111 games. He was fifth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting and would have been higher were it not for the injury.
Defensively, he committed five errors in his first 13 games and 12 in his first 46 games. But Diaz wound up with just 16, including one in his final 31 games and none in his final 17.
“I loved watching Aledmys play last year,” Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “I don’t mind saying he was such a surprise to us in a great way. We had no idea the caliber of player he was. We knew he could hit a little bit, but we didn’t know he could hit like that. We knew he could run a little bit, but we didn’t know he could run like he can run.
“I think when you saw him slow the game down at the end of the year and be more comfortable in the field, he started making the plays, too. He’s just a great player. He’s a really tough out. I mean, that guy can hit. He just adds a lot to our lineup.”
Growing up fast
Diaz doesn’t disclose many details of his defection. He was a member of the Cuban national team that was playing in a tournament in the Netherlands in the summer of 2012. He wound up in Mexico, where his playing opportunities were limited for the next 18 months.
Diaz was eventually cleared by Major League Baseball to sign a free-agent contract, and he came to terms with the Cardinals on a four-year, $8-million deal three years ago.
He batted .273 with five homers and 24 RBIs in a combined 47 games at high Class A Palm Beach and Class AA Springfield. In 2015, the Cardinals were so disappointed in the lack of progress being made by Diaz that they removed him from their 40-man roster. Any team could have placed a waiver claim on Diaz. It didn’t happen.
During that time, Diaz made a renewed commitment to baseball.
“At that point, I was hitting like .220 in the minors,” said Diaz, who was batting .226 with Springfield as late as July 3. “They needed a spot on the 40-man and they took it. I wasn’t performing the right way in the minors. I had to work harder. I came early to the park and hit more in the cage, took more ground balls. That’s the way I took it.”
Diaz lifted his average to .264 and went to Class AAA Memphis for the final 14 games of the season, batting .380 (19-for-50) with three doubles, three home runs and six RBIs. He followed that with a .912 OPS in the Arizona Fall League.
His lesson had been learned, and he harbors no animosity toward the Cardinals.
“A lot of things have happened the last three years,” Diaz said. “I feel blessed that I signed three years ago with the Cardinals. They gave me a chance to go to the big leagues and play the game I love the most. ... The first two years in the minors weren’t the way I wanted, but I think it’s part of life. You have to get over that and keep working.
“I really appreciate this organization. I want to play for this organization the rest of my career.”
Getting his start
Diaz was ticketed to spend the 2016 season at Memphis. But those plans abruptly changed when Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals’ starting shortstop, tore a ligament in his left thumb early in spring training. Peralta required surgery and didn’t return until June 7.
The Cardinals initially signed Ruben Tejada to play shortstop. But Tejada, who had been cut by the New York Mets, strained his left quad, went on the disabled list and was released June 1.
By the time Peralta came back, Diaz was firmly entrenched at shortstop, batting .333 with 18 multi-hit games, including a five-hit breakout in an 11-2 victory April 23 at San Diego.
“I felt really comfortable,” Diaz said. “The year before, the second half in the minors, I felt good. I started hitting and got my timing at home plate. I went to Triple-A and hit almost .400. Then I went to the Fall League and hit .350.
“I didn’t think, in my mind, I would get to the big leagues and hit .400 my first month, but I felt comfortable and was swinging pretty good, and that’s what happened.”
Diaz credits Cardinals manager Mike Matheny for making him feel like he belonged. Two of Diaz’s teammates, Peralta and Yadier Molina, also provided invaluable assistance. Diaz’s success made Peralta a third baseman when he returned from the injury.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the veteran guys on the team,” Diaz said. “When you get to the big leagues, everything is new to you. But that team, the coaching staff and Mike (were helpful). And I have to give thanks to Molina and Peralta. They’re veteran guys and they showed me the right way to do it in the big leagues.”
Peralta was glad to lend a hand.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Peralta said of Diaz. “He came in last year, his first year, and at the beginning he kind of struggled on defense. But in the end, he finished strong. Offensively, nobody can say anything (bad) about him. He can hit. I see him a more confident shortstop right now. I think he’s going to have a very good year. He has everything.”
Diaz prides himself in using the whole field. Striking out is a no-no in his book. He fanned just four times in his first 69 at-bats last season before finishing with 60 in 404 at-bats.
“It’s about putting the ball in play,” Diaz said. “When you see guys hitting .300 in the big leagues, one of the reasons they hit .300 is they’re putting the ball in play. I talked a lot last year with Yadi and he explained that to me. If you put the ball in play, you’ve got a chance, especially when you can run. If you hit a ground ball to the shortstop and you hustle, you’ve got a hit that day. That’s part of my game. Every time I strike out, I don’t feel good.”
Diaz doesn’t set offensive goals because, he said, baseball can be “a game of luck.”
“I don’t think too much about the stats,” Diaz said. “Sometimes you hit the ball hard and make an out. Sometimes you hit the ball badly and get hits. To me, it’s more about being consistent. Take good at-bats. Get on base. That’s my big goal for this year — get on base and give a chance to my teammates to get the RBI.”
Diaz’s defensive improvement was a byproduct of becoming more relaxed.
“I was able to slow the game down,” Diaz said. “When you go to the big leagues, you want to be perfect. You want to hit .300, you want to play great defense. But you don’t know the hitters and everything is new to you.
“No excuses, but the second half of the season, I just felt more comfortable in the field. I knew the batters. I knew my pitchers. I knew when (Carlos) Martinez or (Mike) Leake were going to throw the sinker, so I was in the right position. ... You’re going to see a better shortstop this year.”
Diaz was on top of the world in July when he made the NL All-Star team. He was 0-for-1 in the game, but just being with the best players in the world was an unforgettable experience.
“My first year, my rookie year, to go to the All-Star Game was amazing for me and my family,” Diaz said. “Leaving Cuba, coming here, playing three years in the minors and getting a chance to go to the All-Star Game and be in the same place with the best players in baseball was great. I enjoyed those three days.”
But less than three weeks later, on July 31, Diaz was struck on his right hand by a fastball from Andrew Cashner during a game in Miami. He was hitting .312 at the time of the injury.
Diaz returned Sept. 12 and batted just .216 (11-for-51) in his final 15 games.
“When I came back, I felt pretty good and I kept doing the best I could for my team,” Diaz said. “I lost a month and a half. Getting the strength in my arm back was tough. My forearm was sore after every game. But we were pushing to get to the playoffs. My team needed me at that time. I wanted to do the best for my team. Sometimes you don’t feel 100 percent, but you have to play every day.”
Being on the disabled list enabled Diaz to be with his wife when the couple’s son arrived less than a week later. Nathan, almost 8 months old, adds cheer to Diaz’s life.
“When I see my boy ... It’s great to give him a chance to grow up in a free country,” Diaz said. “He can choose whatever he wants to do, wherever he wants to go. Freedom is great. That’s why I don’t take anything for granted.”
Then came tragedy, when Fernandez and two others were killed the final week of the regular season. Diaz had grown up three doors down from Fernandez in Cuba.
Diaz attended a memorial service for Fernandez, returning with a broken heart and eyes swollen from crying. In his first game after the service, Sept. 27 against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium, Diaz hit a fourth-inning grand slam to power the Cardinals to a 12-5 win.
“I said it last year: He was a great guy,” Diaz said. “Every time I have a chance to put an MLB uniform on, it’s special because of the history. I want to enjoy the game. I want to play 100 percent for him, for his family. That’s what he did for us.”