Is there any minor leaguer in the entire St. Louis Cardinals system about whom there are currently more important health questions than shortstop Aledmys Diaz (pronounced ah-LED-mees), The Cardinal Nation’s 12th-ranked prospect for 2015?
On top of the usual level of mystery inherent with any Cuban signee, further intrigue was added as Diaz essentially disappeared during his first season in the organization.
Just short of one year ago, on March 9, 2014, the Cardinals announced the signing of the then-23-year-old to a Major League contract that covers four years and is worth $8 million. Unspoken hopes were that the eventual replacement for veteran shortstop Jhonny Peralta was in house.
Due to his ongoing shoulder soreness, the last 12 months did not proceed as anyone expected, but after a highly-focused off-season training plan, Diaz is now in Major League camp, healthy, stronger and with intent to make up for lost time.
After his signing, one could surmise that the organization had anticipated that Diaz would put in a strong first season at the upper levels of the minor league system, starting with Double-A Springfield. That would have positioned him to be a serious competitor in spring training 2015 for the open utility infielder spot on the major league roster vacated by Daniel Descalso.
Unfortunately, it did not play out that way. In fact, during his injury-plagued 2014, Diaz was actually pushed down a level to High-A Palm Beach to rehab instead of up to Triple-A Memphis. The right-handed hitter will now likely get that experience with the Pacific Coast League Redbirds this season, an assignment that would also put him just one step away from St. Louis.
Getting there has not been easy.
|Diaz in Cuba c. 2011|
A Twisting, Turning Path
Diaz had five years of experience playing in Cuba, but had mostly been out of action since 2012. Part of that delay was due to a non-physical setback. Allegedly, his agent initially misrepresented his age in attempt to secure a larger contract, since bonuses to experienced 23-year-olds do not count against clubs’ international bonus pools. Like many other baseball-playing Cubans who defected, Diaz established citizenship in Mexico.
Last off-season as a free agent, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder had performed in a series of showcases and private workouts for a number of organizations from Arizona to Florida. Whether or not the strain on his shoulder was caused by his hectic pre-signing schedule, or his long layoff, or a combination, it soon became clear that Diaz was not right. He did not appear in the field until his sixth game for Springfield.
“Definitely when you are doing those tryouts, you can’t hold anything back; you have to show 100 percent what you’ve got,” Rodriguez said in translation of Diaz. “That is definitely part of the reason why the soreness came over him, especially after having that many straight days working out for different organizations showing you are 100 percent every day.”
Before April was out, the shortstop was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain. During the summer, Diaz was shifted back and forth between Springfield and Palm Beach twice for rehabbing, but ended up appearing in only 47 games between the two levels. Of those, he played in the field in just 17 early-season contests with the other 30 at designated hitter, before a hamstring injury ended his season.
He was clearly missed by his Double-A manager, Mike Shildt, who would be his skipper at Triple-A Memphis this season, as well.
“Diaz, the Cuban player we signed in the middle of spring training, hadn’t played in 18 months and it took him awhile to get physically back into shape to play,” the manager recalled last fall.
“He was able to get 105 plate appearances and hit .300 and drove in some runs,” Shildt said. “It was great to have him in the lineup when he was there, but he just wasn’t ready to go and handle that load. So, we backed him off and sent him to Florida.” (Across the two levels, Diaz’ actuals were 179 PAs, .273 average and 24 RBI.)
“It was great to have him in the lineup when he was there, but he just wasn’t ready to go and handle that load. So, we backed him off and sent him to Florida.” – Manager Mike Shildt
While Cardinals officials stated repeatedly that Diaz’ physical problem was minor and non-structural, time marched on. He was still not fully ready to play in the field in the organization’s fall instructional league program with rest and rehab as the continuing game plan.
The Off-Season Approach
About that time, in the late September-early October period, Diaz employed Adam Brush, owner of Boynton Beach, Florida-based Five Tool Baseball Performance Training. The Certified Personal Trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association put the shortstop on an extensive off-season program that included a combination of traditional and functional exercises, and perhaps at least as important, weekly sessions with a massage therapist.
Brush is jokingly called “Gringo Loco” by his clients over the last decade, a group that has included a number of Cuban players, including two years working with MLB all-star Yoenis Cespedes. The strength coach was recommended to Diaz by the shortstop’s friend, left-handed pitcher Misael Siverio, signed by the Seattle Mariners in November.
“Aledmys came in and we knew we had the shoulder issue,” Brush explained. “He knew he wanted to put on a little bit of size and obviously, address the shoulder. When we got going, I could tell that his core strength needed to be a little bit stronger.”
Getting Into the Shoulder
While the challenges in training Diaz were understood, seeking out the root cause of the shoulder problem that was limiting his arm extension was crucial.
“The shoulder issue wasn’t a mystery; it wasn’t a surprise,” the strength coach said. “What was a mystery was what was causing it. Why he was having issues.”
“The shoulder issue wasn’t a mystery; it wasn’t a surprise. What was a mystery was what was causing it. Why he was having issues.” – Trainer Adam Brush
They determined that Diaz had tightness and knots in the soft tissue of his right, throwing shoulder. This was addressed in therapy sessions after each Friday’s regular workout.
“Our massage therapist really went to work on him and found quite a few large knots in his shoulder,” Brush explained. “Little by little, it really opened up his shoulder quite a bit and gave him a tremendous amount of relief.”
The trainer used an analogy to help explain why the process took time.
“Those knots are like a ball of twine, all tangled up,” he said. “You know how tedious it can be to unwrap a ball of twine one string at a time.”
|Modified incline chest press|
The Training Plan
From last fall until Diaz reported to spring training earlier this month, Brush put him through a comprehensive and intensive workout regimen. For his part, the shortstop made a full commitment to the program.
“He never missed a session because he had a headache or he didn’t want to train,” Brush said. “He was here every single week, four days a week. Never missed a (training) session. Never missed a massage therapy session. If he couldn’t make a session because of some other business-related issues, he came in on a Saturday and made it up.”
A variety of exercises were included in Diaz’ regular winter routine.
“A lot of the functional exercises that we implemented have a tremendous amount of core stability component built into the actual exercise,” he explained. “Whether it be a push exercise, it has a core component built in. Whether it is a pull exercise, it has a core component built in. If it is a lower body exercise, it’s got a core component built in.”
Getting Diaz’ shoulder strengthened was always a priority, but within an overall framework.
“Some of these exercises have shoulder stability built in – a lot of one-arm pressing, one-arm pulling,” Brush explained. “We would warm up doing some of our standard shoulder mobility and shoulder stability exercises. We would come outside to do our traditional agility drills and what we call bio-motor drills – hopping and skipping and cariocas and things like that as part of our warm up.
“The big crux of our program is really to integrate the body working together. We don’t isolate muscles, we integrate muscles,” the performance coach said.
You can see multiple videos of Diaz completing some of these exercises on Five Tool Baseball Performance Training’s Facebook page and on their website, along with articles explaining many of the approaches used. Diaz clips include modified incline chest press, unilateral split squat, battling rope slams, lat pulldowns and even truck pushes!
The End Result
When I asked about how progress was assessed, Brush correctly sensed that I had quantitative measurements in mind. It is not that cut and dried, however.
“We don’t have anything like radar guns or stopwatches,” the trainer replied. “I am a big, big believer in efficient movement, good technique and good control and let everything else fall into place around that. At the end of the day, if you have bad technique and you are lifting a lot of weight, we call it building strength on top of disfunction.”
In the view of his coach, Diaz graduated from his winter program with honors. He has not only put his shoulder issues behind but is noticeably stronger. Early camp reports are very positive about his hitting as well.
“He really felt great when we finished our strength training program so he could go to early spring training,” Brush said. “When he got there, he said his arm felt really good. We know that some of the tightness he had in his shoulder kind of limited the extension he was able to get through with his arm. That became a non-issue.”
“We know that some of the tightness he had in his shoulder kind of limited the extension he was able to get through with his arm. That became a non-issue.” – Adam Brush
The results are attributed to a comprehensive plan, the elements of which were executed in concert.
“I could tell that week-by-week training, massage therapy, good nutrition – all of that played a role,” he explained.
Brush has confidence that Diaz is prepared for the long season ahead.
“I think he just needs to show that the shoulder issues he had are behind him. He is very excited with his progress, and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing him play this year,” the strength coach concluded.
Clearly, Brush is not alone in that final point. By all assessments, Diaz is finally ready to show what he has on the baseball field.
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