We’ve been having a lot of fun talking about prospects lately. Rookie Matt McLain has had some good moments, while Elly De La Cruz continues to dazzle and amaze in Triple-A as he awaits the inevitable call to the big leagues. Christian Encarnacion-Strand keeps mashing baseballs to the moon, while at Double-A Noelvi Marte is showing why he is considered the second best prospect in the organization by some.
Meanwhile, The Big ThreeTM starters (Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo) have had some ups and downs, though all look like good bets to be reliable rotation pieces in the coming years. More recent top prospects such as Jonathan India (having an excellent season) and Tyler Stephenson (not so much) are everyday players in Cincinnati, and we’ve already discussed Nick Senzel’s interesting season.
The Reds have gone all-in on a youth movement, and we’re already starting to see the fruits of that strategy. But what if I told you that, secretly, the most exciting young player on the Reds—and perhaps the most valuable—is none of these guys? Here’s another, related question: Over the last two seasons, which Reds player has posted the highest bWAR (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement)?
At this point, if you haven’t guessed that I’m talking about Cincinnati closer Alexis Diaz, I’m going to need you to turn in your Devoted Reader membership card. Diaz has posted 4.1 bWAR over the last two years, better than any of the Big Three, better than India or Stephenson, and better even than comic book superhero Elly De La Cruz (but only because he hasn’t actually played in the big leagues yet). And, sure, bWAR is a less-than-ideal way to judge relievers, but there’s no way to deny that Diaz has been the most valuable Red as well as one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball.
Let’s start with the basics. Diaz’s stat line looks like this: 1-1 with a 1.91 ERA over 19 appearances, with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks. He also has 10 saves, already matching his total from last year. His strikeout rate of 16.41 per nine innings is far and away the best in the National League, a vast improvement on last year’s 11.73 K/9. Meanwhile, Diaz’s walk rate has also improved (4.66 BB/9 last year vs. 3.71 in 2023). He was great last year. By pretty much every measure, he’s been even better this season.
And he’s just 26 years old! While we’re drooling over all the shiny prospects who have just arrived or are on their way, consider this: In April 2022, Diaz was rated by FanGraphs as Cincinnati’s 33rd best prospect, just behind Reiver SanMartin, Riley O’Brien, and the gloriously-named Vin Timpanelli.
Thanks mostly to injuries and Reds management accidentally forgetting to construct a big league bullpen, Diaz surprisingly made the 2022 Opening Day roster. As Steve Mancuso notes in his excellent look at Diaz, the inflection point for the reliever came during the second half of his rookie season, when he started throwing his slider with more frequency. Overall, Diaz used his slider 35 percent of the time last year, but that number was 43 percent after the All-Star Break. In 2023, he’s using it even more: 47.1 percent.
The reason why this is important is pretty simple: His slider is deadly, and it’s well-nigh unhittable when Diaz is playing it off his 95-mph four-seam fastball. Monday night’s game against St. Louis provided an excellent illustration of how effective Diaz can be even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
He entered a tie game with one out and a runner on second, whereupon Diaz quickly retired two hitters to end the inning. In the ninth, despite a bout of wildness, he struck out Paul Goldschmidt with a gorgeous slider, low and away, then retired Nolan Arenado on three straight pitches (the last being an 86-mph slider). After a walk loaded the bases, Diaz struck out Nolan Gorman on, you guessed it, another slider.
Diaz’s ascendance has been remarkable to watch, and in a short period he’s called to mind some of the best relievers in Reds history. In fact, among all relievers who have pitched at least 75 innings for the Reds, his career strikeout rate of 12.7 is the second-best in franchise history, trailing only Aroldis Chapman’s 15.4. It’s higher than Rob Dibble and Scott Williamson and Raisel Iglesias and Jeff Brantley.
If you look at adjusted ERA+, Diaz’s 241 is miles ahead of any other reliever in Reds history. Jeff Shaw is second at 185, followed by Chapman (181) and Ted Abernathy (178). Of course, those others pitched more than three times as many innings as Diaz has logged so far in his career.
So yeah, I’m getting way ahead of myself—we’re still talking about just a season and a half of play—but allow me to dream. It’s been a long time since the Reds had a shut-down closer who could pitch more than one inning, and manager David Bell hasn’t been shy about using Diaz in the most high-leverage situations instead of waiting for a “save situation.” But how much longer will Bell have Diaz in his bullpen arsenal?
Diaz could be a very attractive trade chip as the Reds look to fill in holes elsewhere on the roster. The New York Mets have already reached out at least twice to inquire about Diaz’s availability, and you can be sure that other teams in the playoff hunt will be calling General Manager Nick Krall over the next couple of months. After all, a lockdown closer is a luxury for an also-ran team like the Reds, and relievers are so unpredictable year over year that it’s tough to bet on them performing long-term.
Krall should take every one of those calls, and he should be willing to trade Diaz if someone offers the right package in return. But he doesn’t have to trade him. The Reds have Diaz under team control for five more years, and he’s making a relatively paltry $730,000. He could be the heart and soul of the relief crew as the team hopefully rises in the standings in the coming years, the rock you build the rest of the bullpen around.
Alexis’s brother Edwin is a two-time All-Star who has been one of the best closers in baseball in recent years. His entrance from the bullpen for the Mets has become the stuff of legends. While Edwin spends the season recovering from knee surgery, Alexis keeps getting better and better. He has his own entrance music now and a performance that’s starting to rival his brother’s best seasons.
Does a last place team really need a great closer? No. But tell me you wouldn’t love to see Alexis Diaz sauntering in from the bullpen in a couple of years, during a September game with playoff implications, “Matador” by Marnik and Miami Blue blaring from the loudspeakers. Dare to dream.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.