Strauss: Cuban infielder brings intrigue

2014-02-20T01:45:00Z 2014-03-12T13:15:04Z Strauss: Cuban infielder brings intrigueJOE STRAUSS • jstrauss@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

JUPITER, Fla. • The Cardinals might have preferred anonymity or at least a little more subtlety. It’s difficult not to suspect something out of the ordinary when a 23-year-old wearing a Cuban national team uniform hops out of a golf cart and starts taking grounders on Field 1 behind Roger Dean Stadium.

If the country wasn’t a giveaway, then the No. 6 offered a further hint. If that wasn’t a tell, then DIAZ stenciled above the number provided final confirmation.

His name is Aledmys Diaz, a Cuban infielder with the actions of a young Jeter. Diaz debuted with his native country’s national team at 17 and is only days, maybe hours away from signing a major-league contract. The organization that signs him will gain a player capable of breaking camp with its parent club.

This is all uncharted territory, an out-of-the-clouds move for the Cardinals, who traditionally prefer signing lower-cost clay and shaping it themselves. What happened on a back field Wednesday might have appeared as an interesting break from camp’s routine. More precisely, it suggested a major step for a franchise known for risk aversion and dealing in known quantities.

Diaz will come at a heavy cost. The Los Angeles Dodgers last year signed another Cuban infielder, Alexander Guerrero, for $28 million over four years.

Diaz’s agent, Jaime Torres, also represents Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez and Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig. Torres doesn’t deal in small talent or loose change. He characterizes Diaz as a “major league-ready free agent who can play a premium position.”

Translation: The market isn’t for small-fry investors.

This is deep-sea fishing for an organization that voided its most expensive international investment in 2009 after Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo failed a battery of vision tests.

As for deals that stuck, the Cardinals never have invested more than $2 million in an international free agent. They signed pitcher Carlos Martinez to a $1.5-million bonus after Major League Baseball suspended him for being unable to prove his identity and voided the deal he signed with Boston . They got uber prospect Oscar Taveras for $145,000 in 2008.

The Cardinals pondered Diaz even before their November signing of free agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract.

Peralta’s deal, it should be noted, is front-loaded with only partial no-trade protection. Flexibility is the thread that runs through it.

More than 20 scouts attended Diaz’s workout in Arizona last week. The Cardinals became the fourth stop of Florida spring training sites. Wednesday was for the Cardinals’ eyes only.

Diaz has fielded middle infield positions for numerous teams. The Cardinals put him through drills only at shortstop before the righthanded hitter faced minor-league pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd and a younger hired gun in live batting practice. Staged less than 100 yards away from the ESPN Baseball Tonight bus idling in the stadium parking lot, the 45-minute workout drew Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and his chief lieutenants, manager Mike Matheny, Matheny’s staff, and a number of minor-league coaches. There were too many people around to leave room for intrigue.

“He’s a player we’ve had interest in for a while, and the next natural step in the process was to put him in front of our people in this setting,” Mozeliak said after the workout.

Things move quickly from here.

Torres began accepting formal offers Wednesday. Mozeliak convened a meeting about the player immediately after the workout. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. did not attend the workout but is intimately involved in a process that should lead to the club making an offer by this afternoon.

Diaz “is prepared to move very quickly,” Torres said. Torres told the Post-Dispatch he hopes to conclude negotiations in the next 48 hours. Wherever Diaz lands, Torres insists he is ready to contend for a spot on that team’s opening day roster.

The Cardinals prefer to say little about their chances of signing Diaz. This is the first time they’ve attempted to sculpt a deal of this magnitude with a player so seldom seen in competition. The San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners — teams far more comfortable in this arena — also are engaged in talks.

Torres acknowledged Peralta’s presence on the team as “a factor.” Money and the possibility for rapid advancement are pivotal in Diaz’s considerations. “He’s only 23,” Torres said. “We know he’s going to be in the major leagues. It’s only a matter of time. His preference is shortstop, but he’s played second and third and I’m sure would be comfortable playing whatever position is necessary.”

Diaz is considered a more advanced hitter than Erisbel Arruebarruena, a more gifted defender who last week agreed to a deal believed worth about $25 million with the Dodgers. Diaz’s bat, however, allows him to project at any of three infield positions.

Signing Diaz would probably represent the biggest news within a camp already marked by several redundancies. Adding another high-ceiling infielder would invite short-term questions about how he fits within a framework already including Matt Carpenter at third base, Peralta at short and a potential platoon of Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis at second base. Ellis is signed to only a one-year deal, giving rise to speculation that Diaz’s arrival could complicate Wong’s future with the Cardinals.

Long term, Diaz would represent an obvious alternative if the club eventually shifts Peralta to third base and Carpenter back to second.

The workout done, the Cardinals whisked Diaz from the back field while director of player personnel Matt Slater and director of international operations Moises Rodriguez spoke to Torres. Team employees directed all questions to Mozeliak. Who said spring training is boring? The games already have begun.

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