The stunning impact of Aledmys Diaz, and what it means for the Cards
ST. LOUIS — Two injuries in spring training gave Aledmys Diaz an opening. Now, the St. Louis Cardinals have a rookie of the year candidate at shortstop, a player so productive that when Jhonny Peralta returns Tuesday it will be at third base.
The change for the three-time defending NL Central champions, manager Mike Matheny said, has been "radical."
The rest of the chain reaction of adjustments caused by Diaz’s emergence: Matt Carpenter will relocate from third base to second base, where he played a season in 2013. Kolten Wong, the primary starter at second base the previous two years but slumping with a .222 average this season, was demoted to Triple-A Memphis on Monday.
"My first year, everything is beautiful," Diaz said. "Maybe when we finish the season I’ll look back and say ‘Wow, that was pretty amazing.’"
The 25-year-old Cuban wasn’t really in the conversation before Peralta injured his left thumb fielding a ball in early March and fill-in Ruben Tejada injured a hamstring just before the opener. He seized the job over a third contender, Jedd Gyorko, thanks to a hot bat.
"The opportunity presented itself and it’s a young player stepping in and taking advantage of it," Matheny said. "He’s done a terrific job to open our eyes to potentially not just what he is right now but what he can be in the future."
The Cardinals signed Diaz to a four-year, $8 million deal in 2014. He quickly rose through the farm system, finishing with Triple-A Memphis last season, but appeared blocked given St. Louis has big contract players at third base, shortstop and second base.
Diaz flirted with a .500 batting average much of his first month in the majors, more than enough to ease the congestion. The bat was strong enough to keep him in the lineup during an early rash of errors, and during a recent 4-for-32 slump, too.
"I struggled for maybe like two weeks," Diaz said. "But I think it’s part of the game. You can’t think too much."
He was third in the National League with a .328 average and plenty of pop, with eight homers and 30 RBIs, after a big weekend series against the West-leading San Francisco Giants. Diaz hammered a 3-0 fastball from Jeff Samardzija for a game-tying three-run homer on Saturday and had an RBI double and infield hit in another comeback victory on Sunday.
Diaz played some third base in Cuba and saw a lot of action in the Arizona Fall League at both third and second base. But Matheny intends to leave him at shortstop.
Barring a setback with Peralta, the infield shift becomes a reality Tuesday in Cincinnati. Peralta, an NL All-Star last year, figures to add even more power to a lineup that’s already had five four-homer games.
"We’re not going to bring him back to let him watch," Matheny said. "We want him in there."
Peralta has showed a willingness to make room for Diaz. Carpenter is genuinely fine with the position move, too.
"You tell him something like that and he lights up like this is Little League and you’re asking a kid to play a position he’s never played," Matheny said.
Matheny said he’s had several discussions with Wong, who signed a five-year, $25 million extension before this season, reminding him to stay ready. The Cardinals have already released Tejada.
The Cubs are far ahead in the NL Central, but the Cardinals are coming off a strong weekend against San Francisco. And, there are two wild card spots if the Cubs can’t be run down.
"I’m not worried about the deficit, it’s the first week of June," Matheny said. "I believe we’re competing against ourselves more than anything else right now to find our rhythm."