Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Braves outfielder Matt Diaz will have a part-time role this season, and obviously rookie right fielder Jason Heyward is a big reason why.
But Diaz and other Braves saw this coming before Heyward peppered cars with batting-practice homers in the first week of camp, or put up a plus-.500 on-base percentage and a tape-measure home run against Detroit in the first week of Grapefruit League games.
“I think last year leaving camp, and especially when Frenchy [Jeff Francoeur] was traded,” Diaz said, “the assumption was kind of made then that [Heyward] was our right fielder, coming soon.
“Some of us expected to see him a little bit last season, but there’s no doubt — especially with the way he handled himself early in camp — there was no doubt that he would make the team this spring.”
Diaz said that not with a tone of resignation, but excitement. Like the rest of the Braves, he’s pleased the Braves put aside factors other than performance — i.e. Heyward’s youth or contract ramifications — and made the decision to have the phenom on the opening day roster.
“Oh yeah,” Diaz said. “I’m sure the fans are pleased, but I know this locker room’s very, very pleased. We’re all pumped. We know he can help us. He’s going to make pitchers pitch differently.
“Whether he hits for power or not, he brings that threat to a pitcher, and he’s going to make them bear down. It’s another piece of depth on our team. Makes us a really deep team.”
With Heyward in right field, Diaz could end up sharing time in left with versatile offseason addition Melky Cabrera, a switch-hitter who figures to also play some in center field and some in right.
Diaz has hit .322 with a .403 on-base percentage in 59 at-bats this spring.
“Matty’s ready to go,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He’s swinging great. He’s Matty.”
Diaz’s .310 career average and .817 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) includes a .347 average and .921 OPS against lefties. In 2009 his lefty-righty disparity was more extreme than ever: He hit a torrid .412 with a 1.104 OPS vs. lefties, and .255/.779 vs. right-handers.
“I have no idea how it’s going to work,” Diaz said. “I just know we have four really good outfielders, and Bobby always finds a way to find people playing time. I’m sure if he feels I have the hot hand, I’ll get to play. I don’t know what position, I don’t know when. I’m sure the other guys are the same way.
“Melky’s a switch-hitter and the other two guys are left-handers. I may not [straight-] platoon with Melky, but I imagine I’ll get quite a few at-bats against lefties and hopefully earn some at-bats against righties throughout the course of the year. And God forbid something happen injury-wise, we’re deep. If any one of us go down … any of the four of us, I truly believe, could play every day if needed. It’s a great situation to be in.”