As hard as the game of baseball is to play physically, it’s just as hard to maneuver mentally. Just ask Marlins first base prospect Lewin Diaz.
After his career got off to a flying start, first injury then a bout of terrible luck followed by a once-in-a-century global pandemic wiping out an entire season of production threw wrenches in his development and started giving Diaz some doubts. According to Lewin, the joy was taken out of the game. But while sharpening his tools in the Dominican this offseason, Lewin also did quite a bit of soul searching. And, if early spring results are any indication, that work has begun to pay off.
A 17-year-old international signee out of the DR by the Minnesota Twins in 2014, Lewin jumped a level with each passing season up until 2018. That year, Lewin faced his first setback fracturing his right wrist, an ailment that cost him the final two months of that season.
Lewin was able to put the injury aside in 2019, beginning the season by hitting .290/.333/.553 back in A+ before receiving the promotion to AA. The results followed Diaz to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos as he made the big jump quite fluidly. In 33 games in the panhandle, he hit .302/.341/.587. That is when the corner infield needy Marlins came calling. Just before the trade deadline, Michael Hill and the Fish sent established major league reliever Sergio Romo as well as prospect Chris Vallimont and a PTBNL to the Twins for the Florida State League All-Star’s services.
Many times in the baseball a change of scenery works wonders for a player. But there are also occasions where it works oppositely. Diaz was on the latter side of that equation. After his successes with the Blue Wahoos, Diaz hit just .200/.279/.461. The power persisted but his luck took a strong turn for the worse. After posting a slightly above average .320 BABIP with Pensacola, that number fell to an absurdly unfortunate .188 in Jacksonville. The bad luck caused Lewin to press at the plate. While his K% sat at 17% with Pensacola, it rose to 22% with the Jacksonville.
Diaz attempted to get right in the DR in the winter of 2019 and there were reasons for him to be happy with his performance. In 29 games with his hometown team Estrellas de Oriente, Diaz showed out well, hitting .276/.331/.422 with a team leading three bombs and a second best 20 RBIs.
Diaz got his second spring invite and first with the Marlins that same year. Off to a good start (7/23, 2 2B, HR, 4 RBI), another stroke of bad luck occurred when baseball as well as he rest of the world was shut down due to COVID-19. Diaz’s baseball activity was relegated mostly to the alternate training site. He did get to debut and rack up his first 39 MLB ABs late in the unique 2020 season. Diaz said making his debut, despite the circumstances, was a dream come true.
“It’s everybody’s dream who plays this game to make it to the majors,” Diaz said. “I have to continue to keep working on swinging at good pitches. I’m planning ahead this year.”
Lewin spent this offseason “planning ahead” in the DR playing for the Estrellas de Orientalles and working out with trainers near his home town. According to Don Mattingly, Lewin did suffer from what Mattingly called “a small bout” of the coronavirus. But even still, after struggling to keep his weight up in 2020, Diaz managed to noticeably improve physically.
“I was eating well I was hitting the gym a lot. I gained some muscle mass,” Diaz said. “I feel perfect right now. I feel like I’m hitting the ball a little harder. My plan is to continue doing that and to continue to get stronger.”
While on the field and with his teammates in the DR, Diaz said he took advantage of learning from his older teammates on and off the field, namely Robinson Cano.
“He taught me how to handle myself as a big leaguer,” Diaz said. “He taught me how to always aim for the center of the ball.”
In the best physical playing shape of his career, results have started to come a bit more naturally for Lewin to begin spring training. So far, he has three hits in eight games including two doubles. One of those hits came this past Monday in his first start of the spring against established big league All-Star Marcus Stroman. Diaz, who admitted he came into camp with his mental morale at less than 100%, described that moment as a big one for him.
“Those are things that boost your confidence,” Diaz said. “I saw myself in the starting lineup and knowing Stroman was pitching, I got excited. I’m very excited to get at bats against a major leaguer like Stroman.”
In addition to that at bat against Stroman, Diaz says his confidence level is improving every time he gets on the field. The Marlins are noticing. He’s the only Marlin to appear in all 10 spring games thus far and he’s made it past the first round of cuts.
“He definitely looks more comfortable”, Don Mattingly stated on the current version of Lewin. “He’s had some good swings throughout camp, but it’s good to see him looking more comfortable. He’s made some small changes. You see his hands just a touch higher. I think it’s good for him.”
Earlier in camp, Mattingly stated that he “definitely thinks it’s within the realm of possibility we see him this year over the course of 162 games.”
The fact that he was able to overcome COVID and improve his body this winter and the fact that he is embracing the opportunity presented to him this spring is admirable of the 24 year old. It speaks very well to the type of player he should become and the player we should see back in a Marlins uniform this season. When that happens, expect to see his full potential, that of a cornerstone power hitting first baseman, on full display.