When the Rays claimed Jumbo Diaz off waivers during spring training, it was treated just as another move to build depth in what was expected to be a weak bullpen. There wasn’t much thought thrown into him, just that he was a reliever who struggled with the Cincinnati Reds in 2016 and now he’d be fighting for a bullpen spot on the Rays roster.
Many may not know that he was originally signed as an international free agent after just turning 17 years old, when he was still known as Jose Diaz. Despite just being 17, Diaz was already pretty massive, during his first professional season he tipped the scales at around 240 pounds and stood at 6-foot-4, truly an intimidating figure for all the players that had to face him during the 2002 season.
Diaz was so effective that he rose through each Rookie-Level team in the Dodgers organization and caught the attention of Baseball America who placed him among the team’s top 30 prospects. Also during the 2002 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers has another Jose Diaz in their system (who had been with the team since 1996), so they needed to discern the two.
With the younger Diaz’s rather large stature, he was quickly given the nick name ‘Jumbo’ and it stuck.
During the 2003 season, Diaz must have dealt with an injury as he only pitched in seven games. His prospect status quickly diminished, however, he rebounded in 2004 as he stepped into the backend of the bullpen, finishing out over 30 games and was well on his way to regaining his spot among the Dodgers top prospects before missing the end of the season with a right elbow strain. Still, Baseball America recognized him as the top reliever in the South Atlantic League as well as having the best fastball in that league.
Unfortunately, Jumbo Diaz would have to undergo Tommy John Surgery.
Diaz was still just 21 years old during the 2005 season and once he made his return, he maintained his velocity and managed to be effective at the High-A level. Something was still not right though with Jumbo and from 2006 to 2008, he would only pitch in 20 games.
The Dodgers ultimately released him following the 2007 season, as Jumbo Diaz would have to undergo another surgery that would cost him all of 2008.
Diaz was not deterred, he would sign with the Texas Rangers during the off-season and played in the winter leagues. After a decent showing with their Double-A affiliate, Diaz was released at the beginning of the 2010 season. He would quickly sign with the Baltimore Orioles, spending all of that season between their High-A and Double-A teams, again pitching effectively.
In 2011, he finally made the jump to Triple-A after 10 years in the minors, but he struggled during his limited opportunities.
Diaz once again became a free agent following the 2011 season and chose to sign with the Pittsburg Pirates that winter. During the 2012 season, he was stationed with their Triple-A affiliate and this time he enjoyed a lot more success and finished the season as their closer.
Despite his success, Diaz was once again became a free agent. So, he journeyed to another organization, this time it was the Cincinnati Reds who came calling.
So Diaz pitched for the Red Triple-A affiliate during the 2013 season and proceeded to have the best season of his 12 year minor league career as he carved up opposing hitters. Diaz was on the brink of the majors for the first time in his career, but the call never came.
Something had to change, so Jumbo Diaz, who finished the season weighing close to 350 pounds, made it his goal to lose weight during the off-season.
He lost 69 pounds over four months, reporting to spring training at 278 pounds and he heavily impressed everyone in the Reds camp. Even though he didn’t make the club out of spring training in 2014, the Reds told him to stay ready, his time would come.
On June 20th, 2014 that time had finally come for Jumbo, after 13 years in professional baseball, he would finally make his major league debut.
"You have some point where you wake up and say, 'I'm working hard every day and I don't get the call.' You have to fight it, because you never know when that call will come. If I didn't get the call, I did the best I can. Thank you God, I got the call this morning to try to help the team over here. I'm so happy. It's pretty exciting now." - Jumbo Diaz on persevering and finally making his MLB debut
It was wonderful, and terrible all at the same time.
After retiring the first batter he faced, Diaz got shelled by the Toronto Blue Jays and allowed three runs on three hits, including home runs to Brett Lawrie and Juan Francisco.
Regardless, Diaz spent the remainder of the 2014 season pitching out of the pen for the Reds. His time in the minor leagues wasn’t over yet, but he has reached the pinnacle of his profession. He would enjoy solid years with the Reds from 2015 to 2016, but would be designated for assignment during spring training in 2017, thus allowing the Rays to claim him and stash him in their bullpen.
So far this year with the Rays, Diaz has been a little dicey at times but has also impressed at times. If the Rays do decide to keep Diaz, will be arbitration eligible for the first time his career this offseason after his 16th year in professional baseball.