Yainer Diaz was supposed to be a lottery ticket of sorts.
A secondary piece in 2021’s deadline deal that saw Myles Straw go to Cleveland in exchange for Phil Maton, Diaz was merely an intriguing catching prospect in A-ball at the time of the trade. He possessed good power and a strong arm, but his impressive numbers were against younger competition. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen ranked Diaz 58th out of the 75 prospects dealt at last year’s trade deadline.
While Maton was an integral part of the bullpen during the subsequent postseason, he’s unlikely to be remembered as the best player the Astros received in the Straw trade. Despite having Diaz in their system for just 13 months, the 23-year-old Dominican native has quickly become one of the Astros’ top prospects, as well as one of the better catching prospects in all of baseball.
Diaz has made quick work of upper-minors pitching in 2022, compiling a .306/.356/.542 slash line with 25 home runs across 486 plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A combined, all while striking out just 16.2 percent of the time. Defensively, Diaz has a competent glove to go with his plus arm, according to Longenhagen.
It’s quite the overall profile, which is ostensibly why the Astros have promoted Diaz to the big leagues as rosters expand. Diaz more than warrants a call up, but there doesn’t appear to be a path to playing time.
Backup catcher and recent deadline acquisition Christian Vázquez has already shown himself worthy of a larger role, and he would be the everyday starter were it not for Martín Maldonado’s presence. Outside of pinch-hitting and garnering the rare start behind the dish, catcher doesn’t seem to be an option for Diaz.
The Astros, like most teams, try to amplify their prospects’ defensive versatility by playing them at multiple positions in the minors. Diaz is no exception, having appeared at first base in 36 games between Double-A and Triple-A this year. But like catcher, first base is also quite occupied, with Yuli Gurriel and Trey Mancini firmly atop the depth chart.
While it’s rare for catchers to DH, Diaz’s bat is good enough to justify his inclusion in the Astros’ DH fold. But like the other two positions, it would be nothing more than a limited role, considering Yordan Álvarez’s prodigious bat isn’t going to cede playing time to anyone.
Ideally, there would be a spot awaiting Diaz. Even on a team as good as the Astros, he does possess the ability to meaningfully help the club right away. But even excluding him, there’s already a logjam at the three positions where he could contribute. He’s only going to add to it. It’s a great problem for the Astros to have, though it’s not without its negatives.
On one hand, continuing to play everyday in Triple-A would be helpful for Diaz developmentally. While his bat is MLB-ready, he has all of 219 plate appearances in Sugar Land. Accruing more experience against Triple-A pitching certainly wouldn’t hurt.
But on the other hand, perhaps spending time with the big club in a reserve role would be more valuable for Diaz. He’s not a raw player who needs every at-bat he can get, he’s a polished hitter who has talent behind the plate. Being around Maldonado and Vázquez — two of the savviest backstops in baseball who each possess a wealth of experience — could be highly beneficial.
There’s no question that Diaz will have a notable role to play in the future, but for the time being, he’s likely to be on Houston’s bench for the duration of the September stretch run. If nothing else, the experience of being part of a playoff push could prove valuable long-term for what looks to be the Astros’ catcher of the future.