By Woodard, Dale on July 31, 2020.
Willy Diaz’s baseball career has taken a huge step forward.
But the shortstop for the Prairie Baseball Academy knows he now has to work harder than ever.
The 20-year-old who came to Canada four years ago from his native Dominican Republic inked a contract with the Minnesota Twins earlier this month.
It’s a leap forward in Diaz’s young career, for sure, but the multi-positional player who joined the PBA nearly a year ago knows he has to roll up his sleeves in order to make it to the next level.
“I feel really happy because I’ve been working so hard for this,” he said. “This is my dream. When you get to your goal you feel good, I’m not going to lie. And I’m not done yet.”
Diaz and the Twins first crossed paths about three years ago when Diaz was playing Tournament 12 baseball in Toronto, a program designed for the best amateur baseball players in Canada to catch the eye of college and professional scouts.
The Twins took notice.
“I was in high school and they were talking to me,” said Diaz. “They saw me play there and they liked me. They asked if I was going to school and they asked about my work ethic, how I play the game and what I do. Do I work hard? Am I lazy? That kind of stuff. They just want to get to know you as a person first.”
Twins’ scout Walt Burrows said Diaz was a player who filled the criteria the team looks for in a prospect.
“He has great athleticism,” said Burrows. “He checks a lot of the boxes of what we look for in terms of what we call tools. First off, he’s very fast and is probably in the top percentage of speed guys in all of the game. He can really run, which is a big asset. He throws well and he’s just so athletic.”
Diaz’s journey to a big-league signing began in his native Dominican Republic, where he spent the first 16 years of his life.
“I came here four years ago because of my mother (Eunice),” said Diaz, who lives in Edmonton, but is currently in Lethbridge, training with the PBA each day at Lloyd Nolan Yard. “She wanted a better life for me and my brother (Loriel). We have a lot of opportunities and she just wanted a better opportunity for me and my brother.”
After getting used to the Canadian winters his mother warned him about, Diaz made his way to southern Alberta, joining the PBA roughly nine months ago.
While comfortable pretty much anywhere on the field, Diaz was moved to shortstop by PBA head coach Todd Hubka.
“But I can play anywhere. If I play, I’m happy,” he said.
Burrows said the move to shortstop was a natural transition for Diaz.
“I don’t know what you call it, but he certainly has that Latin flair for fielding ground balls that is really hard to teach. If you compare it to hockey, there are some guys that can really skate and in baseball some guys have that natural skill to be a middle infielder and we’re hoping Willy has that.”
When the travel ban due to the COVID-19 pandemic is lifted, Diaz will report to the Twins Advanced A affiliate Fort Myers Mighty Mussels of the Florida State League.
“I’m exited,” said Diaz. “I want to go and see what’s going on. I want to meet my new coaches and my new teammates. I just want to go there and play.”
In the meantime, it’s back to work with the PBA.
“All I’ve been doing is working and practice, batting practice, running, taking ground balls and working out,” said Diaz. “That’s all I can do right now.”
Diaz said his coaches and teammates were happy about his signing with Twins.
“But they also told me, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to work. You have to show them who you are. We know who you are, but they don’t know who you are. You have to work, you have to show up.'”
Diaz said the PBA instilled that mindset in him.
“They show me how to work, they show me what a work ethic is,” said Diaz. “If you want something, you have to work for it. It’s not like ‘Here, have it.'”
Those intangibles can launch a prospect to the next level.
“If you have a player that has great skills without the workout ethic and the desire and the lack of a fear of failure, which is going to happen, then as you kind of go up the ladder they don’t separate themselves and ultimately they don’t make it,” said Burrows.
“So we definitely look at that in terms of the love of the game. Through the minor-league grind in Florida and spring training in Arizona where a lot of teams are, it’s 110 degrees with no shade. If you don’t have that desire and love for playing, then you take shortcuts and if you take shortcuts ultimately you’re going to meet your match.
“Willy probably has more desire than most of the players that I have seen over the years. He really wants it bad and he works at it. That’s all you can ask. He has talent and hopefully that talent along with that makeup will separate him and who knows from there?”
Burrows also credited Hubka and the PBA for fashioning Diaz into a major league prospect.
“He has been kind of an unpolished apple,” said Burrows. “There are all the tools there, but there wasn’t a program and a steady diet of ground balls, fly balls and batting practice and doing things the right way, like getting in the weight room and all those things that he never had in any program he had been in in the past.
“They (PBA) provided that structured system for him where he could tick all those boxes. His game has taken off because of that. Without what they did, he would probably still be in the same place that he was a year ago, which wasn’t quite there. So kudos to those guys. It was a job well done with the entire staff, especially coach Hubka.”
Until he can join his new team in Florida, Diaz returns to work with his PBA teammates.
“I’m going to stay here and get better every day and get bigger, stronger and faster so when I go down there they’re going to be surprised,” he said. “That’s my plan. I want to be ready to go. I don’t want to be in bad shape or anything like that.”
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