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Time to Maximize Yainer Díaz

With Yordan Alvarez out for an indefinite amount of time, the Astros need to include one of their more promising bats in the lineup.

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MLB: Chicago Cubs at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The day after Yainer Díaz collected the first four-hit game of his career a week ago, he promptly found himself on the bench. This decision, more outlandish at first glance than actual reality would warrant, was due to the Astros sending César Salazar — the club’s third catcher on the depth chart for most of the season — back to Triple-A the night before. As such, Díaz was placed back into the backup catcher role and kept on the bench for that next game. But of the five times Díaz has recorded a multi-hit game in his young career, he has played in the next game only once. Naturally, Salazar was on the active roster for most of the season. Inconsistent playing time for Díaz under this arrangement, especially in April and May, prevented one of the Astros’ top minor league bats last season from having a chance to boost the offense, especially when runs remain at a premium. It was a disappointing development.

As Chandler Rome of The Athletic reported last week, general manager Dana Brown and manager Dusty Baker have not been fully aligned about Díaz’s playing time. The plan of rostering Salazar as the third catcher to help incorporate Díaz’s bat into the lineup didn’t materialize as Brown originally envisioned. Baker holds the authority over the lineup, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Díaz was facing an uphill climb for additional playing time. With Martín Maldonado entrenched as the primary catcher, for better or worse, Díaz would have to move around multiple positions to hit. Alas, José Abreu — struggles and all — occupies first base, with Corey Julks as the primary left fielder when Yordan Alvarez is the designated hitter. Díaz, in turn, sits on the bench with little opportunity other than sporadic playing time as an occasional designated hitter or backup catcher.

But with Alvarez’s oblique injury, and the uncertainty of when he will return, the Astros will need to maximize the number of at-bats for Díaz to help boost an offense that has struggled with consistency. Hitting .274/.293/.464 with three home runs and 102 wRC+ in only 92 plate appearances, Díaz has shown flashes of what has made him the highest-ranked position player in the organization’s latest FanGraphs’ Top Prospect list. Small sample alert here, but only Alvarez posted a higher ISO (.346) in June thus far than Díaz (.318). If his power continues to translate as he recently demonstrated against the Blue Jays and Guardians, I think Díaz’s offensive potential will be too much to ignore.

Of course, Díaz is far from a complete hitter, and there are a couple of issues to overcome. One prominent example, in my opinion, is that the 24-year-old will need to improve his performance against fastballs, particularly four-seamers. At the time of this writing, Díaz’s early returns against four-seam fastballs (.222 BA/.333 SLG, -4 Run Value) need a boost. While Díaz can do some damage against four-seam fastballs high in the zone with modest success on the outer half, he has shown early struggles on offerings running in. If opposing pitchers find he can’t fully handle fastballs coming in on his hands, then Díaz will see a healthy amount of fastballs running in. Again, the returns are small considering his limited playing time, but if you want to make a case to temper expectations for Díaz, I start here.

For the short-term, even with his offensive warts, the Astros’ best chance to maximize their lineup includes Díaz as the primary designated hitter until Alvarez returns. For a club in the bottom half of the league in slugging percentage and isolated power, the idea of not playing someone who could help in this area is difficult to reconcile. While Houston is one of the best teams in baseball in terms of generating contact, the lineup lacks the bite to make opposing pitchers pay. After all, a high contact rate will only go so far if you lack the power to translate. Ask the Guardians, although last weekend’s series may not be a great example. But losing Alvarez, the club’s most dependable source of power so far in 2023, makes the need to maximize Díaz’s at-bats all the more glaring, in my opinion.

Then there is how the Astros view Maldonado and Díaz as catchers once Alvarez returns. Other than the occasional start at designated hitter, the latter likely won’t see the field otherwise unless it is as a catcher. It is clear Baker will rely upon Maldonado heavily as his primary catcher. The organization values what Maldonado brings, especially when you can’t quantify a contribution. Díaz hasn’t reached that point yet, but I wonder if a strong performance at the plate in the coming weeks could sway Baker to give the 24-year-old more opportunities to catch down the stretch. This thought could be wishful thinking, but that is the hope I have for Díaz’s playing time situation. In any case, the Astros would be remiss not to play Díaz as much as possible in hopes he can at least help buoy the offense before reinforcements arrive.