Former Border Cat Jonathan Diaz could Become a Fan Favorite in Toronto

By Bob Elliott ,Toronto Sun

ST. PETERSBURG – Upset that Jose Reyes won’t be in the lineup for the home opener Friday night?

Disappointed your fave from last year, Munenori Kawasaki, is not his replacement?

Fear not.

Take a couple of deep breaths.

Listen to Brandon Morrow as he discusses the new shortstop for your Toronto Blue Jays: Jonathan Diaz.

“He’s a lot like Johnny Mac,” said Morrow at Tropicana Field.


No one has been compared to John McDonald since … well since the Blue Jays sent Aaron Hill and McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson on Aug. 23, 2011.

“He’s quick, he has a strong arm, he’s strong defensively,” said Morrow, who starts Thursday night in Tampa. “He played behind me in the spring, but usually he was at second base.”

Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Omar Vizquel, Maicer Izturis, Ryan Goins, Emilio Bonifacio, Mike McCoy, Brett Lawrie, Chris Woodward, Reyes and Kawasaki have all played short since 2011.

The day of the Arizona trade, I recall leaving the clubhouse and shaking hands with Jose Bautista. The two-time home run champ looked at me quizzically.

Maybe now you have a chance to be the most popular player with McDonald gone, I told him.

Bautista smiled … the same smile Jays pitchers show on a grounder to Diaz, who arrived Tuesday.

McDonald was the little engine that could. He was a slap hitter with 13 home runs in 1,909 plate appearances when he headed to the plate for his first at-bat after his father died.

The father’s last words to the son were “hit a home run for me next time up.”

And that’s what McDonald did.

On Father’s Day.

And that’s why Vernon Wells, Alex Gonzalez, Casey Janssen, Adam Lind, Hill and McDonald went down the tunnel, hugged each other and cried.

* * *

Diaz is no stranger to Ontario. He spent the summer of 2005 playing college ball with the Thunder Bay Border Cats in the Northwoods League.

Chad Miller coached that championship team, which beat the hated Madison Mallards in the final. Miller, 39 coaches at Viterbo University, an NAIA school, has coached on Cape Cod and is an associate scout with the Kansas City Royals.

“Defensively, Jonathan Diaz is the best amateur shortstop I’ve ever coached and probably ever seen,” said Miller on Wednesday afternoon from La Crosse, Wis. “And I had a first rounder in Deven Marrero who went to the Red Sox in 2012. Jonathan was better with the glove. Eric Stamets was an all-star in the Cape and he’s one of the Angels’ best (prospects). Jonathan had a better glove, mind you Eric is a quicker runner.”

Miller knew he was getting something special when Diaz arrived from the North Carolina State Wolfpack, where he committed four errors in 210 chances.

“He created a buzz around the league with his defensive ability,” said Miller. “Anything to his glove was as automatic out. He was undersized. I watched him on the highlights after his RBI single Tuesday. The guy on FOX Sports said ‘He looks like a 14 year old.’ Can you can imagine how young he looked eight seasons ago?”

Miller said Diaz played with a lot of confidence and a chip on his shoulder. While he had bat speed, his bat was “something which needed work.

“Everyone knew he’d have to hit to make the team,” said Miller, who still recalls a ball up the middle against Brainerd one night.

“He fielded on it on his glove side, while he was on the grass, his full momentum going to right field, did a 360 and threw a bullet to first for the out,” said Miller. “Not many guys make that play. He made tough plays look easy. He has a lot of arm strength.”

Miller predicts since Diaz was a fan fave in Thunder Bay, he’ll quickly become one at the Rogers Centre.

“Jonathan Diaz is a great story of perseverance: seven years in the Jays system, one year with the Boston Red Sox last season — he got a ring — now he’s finally getting a chance.”

* * *

Bryan Graham is now the assistant GM of the Border Cats, where Burlington’s Mike Steed was the pitching coach in 2009 and managed in 2010-11. In 2005, Graham was sitting in the stands.

“He had that million-dollar smile even then,” said Graham.

Diaz hit .245 with eight doubles, a triple, and eight RBIs in 47 games during his summer in Thunder Bay.

Brad Jorgenson owns the college summer team, the only Canadian team in the 18-team league which has squads in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Diaz is the second Border Cat grad to make the majors. The first, Matt Mangini, singled off Jays reliever Kevin Gregg for his first hit in the majors on Sept. 23, 2010. You may remember the game, but not for Mangini’s single.

Jose Bautista homered off Felix Hernandez in the first for his 50th homer and later Ichiro Suzuki collected his 200th hit for a 10th straight year, as the Jays won 1-0.

“The year Thunder Bay beat Madison, both Mangini and Diaz had to go back to NC State so they didn’t play in the playoffs,” said Graham. “Madison is the Yankees of the Northwoods. They draw 4,000 fans a night.”

In the first 14 years of the Cats, other Jays have visited Thunder Bay: Casey Janssen, Ryan Goins and Kevin Pillar, along with minor leaguers Aaron Munoz and Eric Brown. Canadians to play in Thunder Bay were Zak Miller, Dan Zehr, Joey Hawkins and Kyle Hann.

Diaz won the equivalent of a gold glove, earning the Rawlings Finest in the Field award.

“I was encouraged this spring that he was wearing No. 1, not No. 91 and Kawasaki wasn’t on the roster,” said Graham.

* * *

Blue Jays right-hander Drew Hutchison was at double-A New Hampshire pitching in front of Diaz for six starts in 2011-12.

“He’s unbelievable with the glove, as good as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Hutchison. “He’ll make a play and the dugout will go ‘Wow!’

“He made hard plays routine. I’ve never seen a guy on a broken-bat flare … take one look and go off on a dead sprint, slide and catch the ball.”

* * *

By rights, Diaz should have been here earlier. In 2011, McDonald — remember him — had a nagging injury. McDonald told him to get ready. Diaz was at triple-A Las Vegas.

Diaz and his fiance Kerry were going to eat after a game when the cab was T-boned by a driver. Diaz wound up with a concussion, a loss of hearing and without his two front teeth as he was giving Kerry, now his wife, a kiss when the accident happened. Two days later, McDonald went down with a hamstring injury and the spot opened for McCoy.

“Get this, it was Friday the 13th and we were riding in a Lucky cab,” said Diaz, who recalls living near Port Arthur Stadium.

“I had the nicest host family, perfect weather, I’d ride my bike to the park every day, I lived close,” said Diaz. “I’d ride past The Sleeping Giant.”

Viewed from the west, mesas and hills on nearby Sibley Peninsula resemble a giant lying on its back.

Where did he get his fielding abilities?

“I loved to practice with my dad,” said Diaz. His father Tony moved from the Dominican to Miami and managed a warehouse.

Diaz’s story of perseverance began when he made NC State as a walk-on, like David Eckstein, with exactly $0 scholarship help. He started all three years.

Jays scout Marc Tramuta selected him in the 12th round in 2006 — when GM J.P. Ricciardi took Travis Snider first — and gave him a $4,500 US bonus. He hit .255 with eight doubles, a triple, one homer and 31 RBIs with a .726 OPS his final year with the Wolfpack.

An every-day player at class-A Auburn and class-A Lansing in 2006-07, Diaz found himself sitting four of five days a week at class-A Dunedin.

“That was the roughest,” said Diaz.

How tall is he?

“Five-foot-nine … on paper,” said Diaz. “Probably 5-foot-8.”

Or to steal the old scout’s line, 6-foot-2 if you like him as Thunder Bay fans did.

* * *

Manager John Gibbons likes his new every-day shortstop.

“There’s only one conflict, the Kentucky Derby,” said Gibbons.

He’s not from Kentucky.

“No, but he might be riding in the Derby.”

Twitter@ ElliottBaseball