The Houston Astros struck gold with Yainer Díaz.
Trading away their starting center fielder Myles Straw in 2021 for an established reliever in Phil Maton and an unknown Low-A catcher, the Astros drew many questions on the future of the lineup and a position left open to rookies Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers.
But the jewel of that trade was Díaz. Starting the 2021 season in Low-A, the catcher was quick to jump to High-A after 12 games in Houston’s system. Díaz rounded out the year with the Tourists, slashing .396/.438/.781 with 11 home runs in 25 games.
Although poised for a quick rise in his first full season under Astros player development, Díaz didn’t receive a non-roster invite for spring training. But that didn’t stop him from making another jump to start his fifth minor league season.
Díaz began this year in Double-A Corpus Christi, where he clubbed nine home runs and 13 doubles in 57 games. He received a promotion to Triple-A Sugar Land in June and never looked back.
His offensive success continued in 48 Pacific League contests. Díaz was quick to flash more of his power with 16 home runs, taking his play to the All-Star Futures Game in July and later a Major League call-up in September.
His offense was always admired by the Astros. It was sought out at the 2021 trade deadline from the then Cleveland Indians, but Díaz’s defense is something to monitor, as he enters his first spring training on the 40-man roster.
Prior to landing in Houston’s system, Díaz made just two starts at first base in his professional career, and both came in 2021 with Low-A Lynchburg. Once he joined the Astros in August, he started 10 of his 37 games at first base.
The position addition appeared quick, but where it resides important in Díaz’s bag of tricks is how much it offers to the Astros roster. As of Saturday, Houston rosters three catchers: Martín Maldonado, Korey Lee and Díaz.
Houston was linked to multiple veteran options this offseason, and while the winter isn’t over yet, Díaz is vying for a 26-man roster spot along with Lee. But Díaz appears to have an upper hand.
The 24-year-old prospect has been active on social media this offseason, posting his workouts to his Instagram. On Saturday, Díaz took grounders at first base, continuing his progression at a position added to his game nearly a year-and-a-half ago.
Díaz started 50 games behind home plate between the Space Cowboys and the Hooks in 2022. He also started 34 games at first base, bolstering his chances of being another first base option behind José Abreu with utilityman David Hensley in the upcoming season.
For Lee, his offensive explosion following the 2022 trade deadline went unnoticed. In 40 games with the Space Cowboys after being optioned following the acquisition of Christian Vázquez, Lee posted a .924 OPS with 15 home runs and six doubles.
Everything clicked for Lee in a consistent run in Sugar Land, but his success didn’t warrant a September promotion, as Díaz stuck it out on the 28-man roster almost the entire month. The lack of playing time was questioned, but Díaz was a sponge to the teaching of Maldonado and Vázquez although only appearing in six games.
Following the postseason, Díaz, who was on the taxi squad, departed for the Dominican Winter League, where he spent the previous offseason. The righty didn’t get his bat going, slapping three hits in 38 trips to the plate for the Leones del Escogido.
Bouncing around the Dominican Republic, he also competed in a charity softball game held by Cleveland Guardians third baseman José Ramírez this week. He was joined by Astros prospects Luis Baez and Victor Díaz, his brother.
Left unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft in 2021, Díaz was likely not going to be selected in the Major League phase given his lack of play beyond High-A. While the Major League phase was later canceled, the Astros dodged the slim chance of losing a future contributor in Díaz.
With Lee and Díaz competing for a roster spot this spring, the addition of first base to Díaz’s game increases his chances of making the Major League squad. The Astros can still explore a trade or a signing this offseason for a veteran backup to Maldonado, but as the roster sits now, Díaz’s versatility and Lee’s offensive improvements are pivotal to the Astros roster future.