Where would the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals have been without rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz? The Cuban native capped off an amazing career turnaround with a strong rookie season that began barely a year and a half after he was outrighted and went unclaimed.
In just the third Grapefruit League game, incumbent shortstop Jhonny Peralta tore a thumb ligament, with a prognosis of 2-3 months out. To be the everyday replacement, veteran Ruben Tejada, who had been released by the Mets a few days before, was signed. The bad luck continued when Tejada suffered a left quad strain in the team’s final spring training contest.
That opened the door for Diaz, who had been slated for an assignment with Triple-A Memphis. Instead, placed in the eighth spot in the Cardinals batting order to ease pressure on him, Diaz hit and hit and hit, though his defense was initially shaky.
Diaz batted .423 for the first month, the fourth-best April for a rookie in MLB history. Finally, a quarter of the way into the season, on May 19, he was promoted into the second spot in the lineup. At that point, Diaz was the team leader by a considerable margin in all four slash categories – .376/.403/.648/1.071.
The right-handed hitter went on to appear in 111 games. Despite missing a month due to a thumb fracture and a drop-off after his return, Diaz still batted .300 for the season, with a team-best 26-game on-base streak (from June 19 through July 23). The shortstop’s .510 slugging percentage was first on the entire team, ahead of notable boppers Brandon Moss, Jedd Gyorko, Matt Adams, Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk.
Diaz’ 2.7 fWAR was not only tops among Cardinals first-year position players, it was second among all hitters on the team to The Cardinal Nation’s Player of the Year, Matt Carpenter. The Cuban’s .879 OPS, second-highest on the club, was only .006 behind Carpenter, who also was not 100 percent healthy in the second half.
When Carpenter was unable to play in the MLB All-Star Game due to injury, Diaz was named to the National League squad as his replacement. When Peralta returned, he was kept off shortstop entirely, with the position now clearly Diaz’.
Following the season, Diaz finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote, concluding an excellent debut season that was entirely unanticipated.
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