Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – After a winter of rumors that the Braves might sign Xavier Nady, Johnny Damon or one of a half-dozen others to play left field, those guys aren’t here. And Matt Diaz is.
Who’d have thunk it five years ago, that Diaz would still be here? That he’d become not just The Survivor, but one of the more popular members of the Braves with fans and teammates alike.
(Speaking of popular — or not — I should point out that my day began with AJC columnist Jeff Schultz staggering into the living room of the MIB Blog annex headquarters, wearing what appeared to be pajama pants, asking to borrow shampoo. “I’ll just put some on my head,” he said.)
Now where were we? Oh, yes, Matt Diaz, who came to the Braves in largely overlooked trade for minor league pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez a week before Christmas in 2005. When the trade went down, they were both obscure.
If someone knows what ol’ Ricardo is doing these days, let us know.
Diaz? Since he came to the Braves he’s hit .316 with 34 home runs, a .363 on-base percentage, a .466 slugging percentage and an .829 OPS in 427 games and 1,161 at-bats while used in a variety of corner-outfield roles, most of them part-time.
You’re talking about a guy who was already 27 when he was traded to the Braves and had just 119 at-bats in the majors, with a .252 average and two home runs to show for it.
So maybe that’s why Diaz doesn’t get too worried when the Braves acquire Melky Cabrera in an offseason trade, or when he hears rumors that the team’s pursuing Nady or Damon to play left field, or he reads that phenom Jason Heyward could be playing every day in right field from opening day.
Diaz doesn’t call around to ask reporters or club personnel: “What about me? Will there be a roster spot or any playing time left for me?” No, he hangs out with his family in Central Florida while all this is going on during the offseason, does his P90X diet/fitness regime for the second winter in a row, and prepares for spring training and the 2010 season.
And when someone – me — asks him a few days into camp about his possible role, he sort of shrugs.
“When I came to the Braves in ‘06, I had no expectations other than just hoping to make the team,” Mr. Amiable says. “So I always try to take myself back to that place and just try to figure out how I can help the team. And really it’s worked out for me in the long run – just by trying to help the team, it’s helped me personally.”
He’s almost too nice to believe at times. Almost seems too selfless and too good a teammate to wonder if there’s not something going on behind that innocent smile and he-could-be-the-insurance-salesman-next-door look.
But it’s 100 percent authentic, folks. At least from all I’ve seen over five years, and from everything I’ve ever heard anyone say about him, on or off the record.
So here he is starting his fifth season with the Braves, and it looks like Diaz could either be the primary left fielder, or play in some sort of straight or partial platoon with Melky Cabrera – Diaz has a .347 career average and .921 OPS vs. lefties, .276 with a .721 OPS vs. righties.
Either way, it’s all good with Matty D. That’s what he says, and he sure says it like he means it.
“I feel like Bobby knows that for months at a time I played every day for him in the past few years,” Diaz said. “For months at a time I’ve platooned for him. And there’s been months at a time where I felt like I just pinch-hit. But whatever role I’ve been in for that time, it’s been a good one for me. He’s always put me in a position to succeed.”
“I’m not really concerned about it,” he said. “I talked to [veteran newcomer Eric] Hinske about it, too. He went from being an every-day guy to be being a bench guy. You just talk to him and realize for him to be able to do that, he’s checked his ego at the door. And looking back, that’s really what I’ve been able to do and tried to do, is just check my ego at the door.”
Diaz has had two seasons where he got at least 300 at-bats, and he performed exceptionally well in each. He hit .338 with 21 doubles and 12 homers in 358 at-bats in 2007, and hit .313 with 35 extra-base hits (13 homers) and 58 RBI in a career-high 371 ABs in 2009.
Doesn’t he wonder what he might do in 500-600 at-bats as an every-day starter? Wouldn’t he love to be the starting left fielder for, oh, at least 140 games this season?
“Yeah I would love that,” he said. “I feel like by not playing every day I do miss some slumps, but I also miss some hot streaks in there, too. So I don’t know if I’d be – I guess my career average is right at .310 – I don’t know if I’d .310, but I think I could be productive as a main guy, I really do.
“The only year I really got a chance to play every day was in ‘08, and I got hurt. I stunk in April, which is usual unfortunately for me, then got hurt in May.”
Diaz hit .244 with two homers and a .264 OBP in 135 at-bats in 2008, when he hurt a knee in May and played only one game the rest of the season, in September. His other three seasons with the Braves have exceeded all expectations anyone could have had when the Braves acquired him.
Can he hit .300 with 25 homers in a full season as a lineup regular? No one knows for sure.
“Hopefully this year if I get a chance to play more, I’ll start out a little hotter,” he said. “I changed my offseason regimen a little just to try to get ready, to try to change up what I do in April, that’s for sure.”
Diaz wants to be ready, because he’s got a feeling about this team. One he and some of his teammates have never had before, at least not to this degree.
“This is the most confident I’ve ever seen a Braves camp,” he said. “And I think we have reason to be my confident…. If you look at last year, we just have more ‘knowns’ this year. Like, Tim Hudson we know his record. Javy [Vazquez] had a great year last year; it was a career year for him. Can he do it again? Absolutely. But we know Tim Hudson can do that.”
♣ Jurrjens update: I’ll give you another update on Jair Jurrjens in the comments section below after I talk to him in the clubhouse following today’s workout, which is wrapping up now. But for now, what’s important to note is that the Braves and their prized right-hander aren’t out of the woods quite yet with his shoulder situation.
Most of you know he had an MRI last week after complaining of shoulder stiffness when he reported early to spring training. He’d felt something pop when he made an underhanded throw during a loosely organized game with other professional players in Curacao before leaving for Florida, then had lingering soreness after he got to camp.
The MRI was clean, no problems with the rotator cuff or labrum whatsoever. Just some inflammation in the shoulder, according to the doc.
Progress has been good so far, with Jurrjens playing catch Sunday and Tuesday, then long-tossing yesterday from as far as 90 feet. But there’s still a ways to go before he’ll be ready to get off the mound and hopefully make a start no more than a week behind the other pitchers.
Here’s what pitching coach Roger McDowell told me this morning: “We’re still not [in the clear] yet. Yesterday he threw up to 90 feet and felt minimal pain, so no, we’re not. It’s just going to be a day-to-day thing and progression until we get on the mound.”
Also, despite so many proclamations that Tim Hudson is 100 percent recovered from his ligament-transplant elbow surgery (aka “Tommy John”) and ready to go, McDowell points out that there still must be at least some caution moving forward in the early part of the season.
“We’re still getting out of Tommy John territory so that being said, it’s going to be a year where we’ll be careful and watch,” McDowell said, “and as we continue through the year we’ll start to take some of the reins off and let him go.”
Alright, I’ll be back in a while. Headed back down to the field and clubhouse. Let’s take it out with a cut from one of the finest, hard-edged singer-songwriters to come along in recent years:
“ONE MAN’S SHAME” by William Elliott Whitmore
Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
When she knows her child has strayed from the foal
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love