(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Prospect Highlights: Walk-Off From Mel Rojas Jr, Elias Diaz Plates Two

Mel Rojas Jr had a nifty piece of hitting in the tenth inning last night, which ended up winning the game for Indianapolis. He squares around to bunt, but as the pitch comes, he pulls the bat back and lines a game-winning double down the third base line. Since being called up to Indianapolis, Rojas has a .287/.373/.381 slash line in 57 games.

One problem with his game has always been too many strikeouts and not enough walks. His career BB/SO ratios aren’t the worst you’ll see, but they definitely could have used improvements coming into this season and it looks like it’s something Rojas has been working on. On Friday, he set a season-high when he drew his 47th walk. He is probably going to set a career-low in season strikeouts, barring a poor ending to the year. Rojas has already topped his career-best in homers with seven and he’s driven in more runs this year than ever before, showing a knack for hitting in the clutch.

While he hasn’t had the break out season that Andrew Lambo had last year, Rojas has still shown that he has Major League potential and could soon see time with the Pirates as a fourth outfielder that can play all three positions, add speed off the bench and he hits from both sides of the plate.

Elias Diaz went 3-for-3 on Saturday, driving home three runs, including two on the double shown below that scored Alen Hanson and Josh Bell. The 23-year-old catcher continues to impress this year, both at the plate and behind it, where his defense is rated above average. Diaz is hitting .320 with an .800 OPS. He ranks third in the Eastern League in batting average and leads all Altoona hitters in that category.

Diaz got a lucky break this year, though it was a bad break for Carlos Paulino, who is now relegated to the back-up role. Paulino is also a strong defensive catcher, who looked like he was on his way to a Major League job at some point, serving as a strong defensive back-up. He started the year at Indianapolis while Tony Sanchez was with the Pirates, which opened up a full-time spot for Elias Diaz with Altoona. Paulino got sent back to Altoona, but immediately hurt his knee and missed a full month, then went to the GCL for rehab and got plunked in the head during his first plate appearance, which cost his some more time. That gave Diaz time to play everyday and he has continued to hit all year, which has limited the chances for Paulino, who is a year older and doesn’t have the bat that Diaz does.

Diaz has now moved up the depth chart at catching and looks like he could be a valuable back-up someday. He will need to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season and it’s likely he will see full-time duty at Indianapolis next year. It’s also likely that both Rojas and Diaz will play Winter Ball this off-season, as both did last year and it will be interesting to follow along if they do. Players in the Dominican and Venezuela get playing time based on skill and performance, not whether they need to get time in, so if you can’t keep up with the level of play, you don’t play often. The teams are there to win, so while we call it Winter Ball, it’s actually their regular season. Both players saw decent playing time(Rojas arrived late, but played everyday once he did), so they should see plenty of time this year as well.

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John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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  • leowalter

    Maybe it is just me in my old age,but Diaz looks to me like he could very easily be ahead of Tony Sanchez at some point in the near future. Much more consistent defensively as there is no comparison when it comes to their arms. Offensively Diaz just has to keep improving. He looks better to me than just a backup candidate.

    • John Dreker

      Right now he is considered a back-up because you have to take everything into account. This is his sixth season of pro ball and he plays Winter ball, so he might be only 23(24 in November), but he has a lot of experience. This is also the first season that he has hit well in a full-time role. Diaz won’t hit for power and doesn’t take a huge amount of walks, so that limits his upside. If he has the same performance next year at AAA, then you start thinking higher for him, but right now, he doesn’t profile as a starter, at least not a good one.

    • leowalter

      Thugh I won’t disagree John,I would point out that I mentioned that I thought he needed to keep improving offensively. And I would agree that he probably won’t bring a lot of HR power to the position,but I think he has linedrive/gap power. I think what I am basing my opinion on is the fact that Paulino has always been projected as a prospective MLB backup, and Diaz ,to me has far surpassed Paulino offensively,and been at least as competent defensively, if not even better. And if Tony Sánchez had Diaz’s arm and was as consistent with that arm, he would be right behind Martin as far as I can see.

      • John Dreker

        Paulino is gifted defensively, so his back-up projection was based solely on his glove getting him to the Majors at some point. I don’t think anyone ever considered him the type that would stick in the Majors though and judging by the fact that he went unprotected in the Rule V draft, even with some AAA experience(plus he was starting regularly in the Dominican Winter League), teams probably agreed with the assessment. Any team could have had an above average defensive back-up catcher for $50K and they all passed. We didn’t even rate him top 50 in our book, just gave him a chance to make the Majors basically and that list was put together before the Rule V draft.

        Diaz right now, I personally view as a legit back-up candidate, which is more than I ever thought for Paulino. Basically the difference between an Opening Day roster spot and the third string waiting at AAA to get called up if needed. That I believe is a big difference. If he does the same thing in AAA next year that he is doing this year, then I might change those projections, but we have seen plenty of players hit in AA and go nowhere.

        You probably remember Eric Fryer, who won a batting title in the minors, has a very strong arm and he has played a handful of games in the Majors over four seasons and that was basically his projections from most people. He has a lot of similarities to Diaz in that regard, except he wasn’t really a strong defensive catcher, just had a plus arm, so he didn’t project as a legit back-up. I think he is a better example to compare Diaz too, he has the bat, the arm, but not the overall defense and that keeps him as a AAAA player.

        • leowalter

          Yes John, I do remember Fryer,and the main thing I took away from his catching was that he was put in RF most of the time. He was a lot closer in ability as a catcher to Ryan Doumit than to Russell Martin !

          • John Dreker

            Exactly, and that’s why despite the batting title and strong hitting at high levels and a cannon behind the plate, he is a AAAA catcher. I think he is a slightly better hitter than Diaz and possibly a better thrower, but at worst, they are equal. It just shows that it’s tough to toil in the minors for six seasons without reaching AAA and be considered a possible starter in the majors. So I think it’s too early to put that tag on him.

          • leowalter

            Last point John then time to put this one to bed. Diaz’s footwork and blocking is far superior to anything I saw out of Fryer, and I don’t recall ever seeing Fryer throw out a would be base stealer from his knees…..which I did see Diaz do once, and just miss getting another guy on another occasion. The guy had a great jump and still just beat the throw by the way.

  • dr dng

    John, as I mentioned on another thread, I made my yearly Altoona trip last night. I like to talk to the ushers-especially those who really know the game. I think this comment by an usher is telling about Diaz. He said, “I’ve been working these games for a lot of year and Diaz is the hardest working catcher I have seen.”

    I think that says a lot!

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