THE BEES ARE everywhere. It's a shiny March morning in Arizona, and Javier Baez has just lined a BP fastball off the protective screen in front of third base, infuriating hundreds of black and yellow abejas that had been congregating on one corner of the netting. The sudden swarm sends Team Puerto Rico -- here to take on the Colorado Rockies in one last exhibition game before heading to Mexico for the World Baseball Classic -- into an all-out panic. Even though there's star power aplenty (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran), it's hard to tell who's who because Baez just turned the WBC into the W-Bee-C. And everyone's kinda freaking out.
In shallow left field, several players hit the ground and lay flat on their stomachs. A few take shelter in the dugout. Despite the scorching Scottsdale sun, one guy pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and, for good measure, throws his glove on top of that. Meanwhile, Edwin Diaz goes about his business, running sprints in the outfield and spitting sunflower seeds, as if nothing has happened.
Being impervious to chaos isn't new for Diaz, whose presence on the Puerto Rican national team is borderline shocking. This time last year, he was a prospect with the Seattle Mariners who'd barely been above Single-A and didn't get an invite to big-league camp. Twelve months later, he's one of MLB's most dominant relievers, the obvious choice to be the closer on a stacked Puerto Rico squad that's expected to challenge for WBC glory. More importantly for the Mariners, he's being counted on to help them win their first division title in 16 years.
Of all the moves GM Jerry Dipoto made this offseason, the boldest one very well might be entrusting the back end of his bullpen to a 22-year-old kid without a proper walkout song.
THEY SAY THAT nothing good happens after midnight, but don't try telling that to Dipoto. In December of 2015, at a little past three in the morning, the former Angels general manager found himself seated at a long table inside an Opryland suite, surrounded by a dozen other Mariners execs. In the couple days since arriving in Nashville for baseball's annual winter meetings, Dipoto -- a notorious wheeler and dealer who'd taken the Seattle job that September -- had been getting hammered with trade offers, many of which involved the name Edwin Diaz.
Dipoto was familiar with the lanky righty, having scouted him with Anaheim ahead of the 2012 draft, but he didn't know him as well as he wanted to. Not well enough to tell whether it'd be a mistake to trade him away. As he sat there staring at the large video screen, Dipoto posed a question to the group: What exactly is he?
"You can't make a closer. Closers let you know who they are, and Edwin let us know pretty quickly."Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto
Half the room thought Diaz was a starter. After all, that's what he'd been ever since switching from outfield to pitcher as a 15-year-old in Puerto Rico. That's what he was drafted as in the third round back in 2012. That's what he'd been all through the minors, where he'd impressed enough that heading into the 2016 season, he was ranked as Seattle's second-best prospect.
The other half of the room -- the half that included Dipoto -- wasn't so sure. The mid-90s fastball was for real, but the slider was slow to develop. Although he'd bulked up a little since being drafted at 150 pounds, Diaz was still rail-thin and hardly looked like the type who could handle 200 innings a year. Even if he could, where was his third pitch?
Although Dipoto left the suite that night with his question unanswered, he'd seen enough to know that he wanted to hoard his hurler. Two months later in Peoria, Arizona, when the GM laid eyes on Diaz for the first time as a pro, he saw a heater that had more jump than a Kris Kross cover band. He saw a three-quarter delivery that was all arms and elbows coming right at you. He saw a lightning-quick whip that made it damn near impossible to track the ball. In short, he saw a reliever.
"My immediate reaction," says Dipoto, "was that Edwin would be nasty in short outings."
THREE MONTHS LATER, on May 6, Diaz had an unexpectedly short outing. Making his sixth start of the year for the Mariners' Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Tennessee, he spent the first two innings dealing, just as he'd done for the better part of the first month of the season. But when he got back to the home dugout after the top of the second, he heard manager Darren Brown tell him to hit the showers. His day was done.
"Why?" the young pitcher asked.
"We'll talk about it later," the skipper told him.
In Brown's office after the game, Diaz sat there wondering what the heck was going on. Was he being traded? Was he getting promoted to Tacoma, home of the Mariners' Triple-A team? Was he being called up to the big club because somebody got hurt? Turns out it was none of the above. Instead, he was informed his career as a starter was history. He was being converted to a reliever, effective immediately.
For 15 minutes, Diaz sat there quietly and listened as Brown told him about his new role. About how the Mariners could use a power arm in the bullpen. About how they thought Diaz was just the right guy. About how if he took to the new gig, there was a good chance he'd find himself moving up the organizational food chain sooner rather than later. What the skipper didn't divulge is that this had been the plan all along. That as soon as Dipoto saw the youngster at minor league camp in Peoria, his mind was made up and that pretty much everyone -- from Brown to M's manager Scott Servais to all the folks from the 3 a.m. Opryland video session -- had known about the change for months. Everyone except for Edwin Diaz.
Even though Dipoto knew that Diaz's future was in the bullpen, he never told him. Instead, the GM sent the young righty back to Jackson to work as a starter so he could build stamina and continue to develop his repertoire. At some point, when the timing was right, the Mariners would flip the switch. From the moment they did, the kid was lights-out.
In his first relief outing at Double-A, Diaz worked one inning, retiring the side in order, striking out two, and touching 100 mph with his fastball, a full 7 mph more than the 93 he'd been averaging as a starter. Upon receiving the game report, Dipoto was so incredulous he picked up the phone and called Brown just to make sure it was accurate. As for Diaz, he was so dominant in his new role -- in 10 relief appearances with Jackson, he whiffed 16 batters and allowed just three hits -- that on June 4, less than a month after going to the bullpen, the Mariners promoted him. Not to Tacoma, but to the Emerald City 35 miles north. To hell with Triple-A. Edwin Diaz was headed straight to the majors.
OF ALL THE big moments Diaz experienced during his rookie season, and there were plenty, there's one that stands out from the rest. "My first big-league strikeout," he says, standing outside Team Puerto Rico's clubhouse after an early March workout. "I will remember that day for all my life."
The day in question was June 6, 2016. With the Mariners trailing 3-1 through six innings against the eventual American League champion Cleveland Indians, Diaz was summoned for his first big-league appearance. After retiring Chris Gimenez on a grounder to third to start the top of the seventh, he got ahead no balls and two strikes on Tyler Naquin, a former first-round pick who came into the game hitting .351 and who would go on to finish third in the rookie of the year voting. On the third and final pitch of the at-bat, Diaz reared back and unleashed a 100-mph rocket that, nine months later, folks are still talking about.
"I was just sitting there doing my exercises," says Seattle lefty James Paxton, who started that day and worked six innings before adjourning to the training room, where he watched Diaz's debut on TV. "And here comes this young kid throwing absolute cheddar, making guys look silly. He was electric." Almost as impressive as the stuff was the stoicism.
"It was his first big-league game, but you would've thought it was his hundredth," says bullpen coach Mike Hampton of Diaz, who threw 10 of 11 pitches for strikes during a debut in which his fastball averaged 99.2 mph. The performance sent every section of Safeco Field into a frenzy. Especially the VIP suite.
"My first big-league strikeout. I will remember that day for all my life."
Sitting in the team box with assistant GM Jeff Kingston, Dipoto felt his phone buzz shortly after Diaz punched out Naquin with triple-digit gas. He looked down and saw a text from Indians president Chris Antonetti, who was watching the game back in Cleveland. "What was that???" read the message. A couple pitches later, when Diaz registered 101 on the radar gun, Dipoto turned to Kingston and, with his eyebrows practically touching his hairline, said, "I think this is gonna work."
It worked so well that by the beginning of August, the Mariners -- who had no specific role in mind when they decided to convert Diaz to relief -- handed the rangy righty the keys to the ninth inning. "You can't make a closer," says Dipoto, himself a former starter-turned-reliever. "Closers let you know who they are, and Edwin let us know pretty quickly." So quickly, in fact, that when it came time for his first career save opportunity, he didn't even have a walkout song. Well, not technically.
Anyone who's ever watched a game at Safeco Field knows closer theme songs are kind of a big deal. Kazuhiro Sasaki had "Zombie Nation." J.J. Putz had "Thunderstruck." Steve Cishek had "Courtesy Call." All of them had lots of blinky lights and special effects. But Dipoto, not wanting to spook Diaz in his debut as closer, specifically asked the game operations team to refrain from any kind of pyrotechnics. Instead, Diaz provided his own.
Facing the Red Sox on Aug. 2 in Seattle, Diaz struck out the side and set a major league record in the process, tallying his 50th K faster than any pitcher since the 19th century (25.1 IP). The following day, when he emerged from the bullpen for his second save chance, the Mariners' entertainment team had "Pour Some Sugar on Me" all cued up and ready to go, a nod to the nickname Diaz got back in high school, when his travel team watched the baseball flick "Sugar" and decided that their pitcher resembled the Dominican title character.
As much as Safeco fans dug the Def Leppard classic, the hurler himself -- who was born seven years after its release -- wasn't feeling it. So a few days into his tenure as Seattle's closer, he tweaked his entrance accompaniment and went with a mid-tempo reggaeton song by Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderon, entitled "Pa' Que Retozen." But that didn't do the trick, either. Says Dipoto: "It was like elevator music." So the Mariners suggested coupling it with a remix of Robin Schultz's "Sugar." No matter how Diaz entered the game, the results were the same.
He converted his first 11 save opportunities and finished with 18 saves, more than any other closer over the final two months. He averaged 15.3 K's per nine innings (second in MLB), thanks in part to a retooled slider grip he learned on the fly from teammate Joaquin Benoit at the end of June (his swing-and-miss rate on sliders went from 30 percent through June 23 to 61 percent after). Despite spending a third of the season in the minors, his 1.9 WAR ranked sixth among AL relievers, ahead of All-Stars Craig Kimbrel, Alex Colome and Will Harris. Most importantly, he helped transform the middling Mariners (they were 52-52 prior to Diaz becoming closer) into a legit contender (they finished 10 games above .500 and were in the wild-card race until the final weekend).
"He's a special pitcher," says Houston Astros star and Team Puerto Rico shortstop Correa. "He's a game-changer."
A MONTH BEFORE the start of the 2017 season, Seattle's gangly game-changer is still searching for that one perfect walkout song. "I will find one soon," he says. It's one of several signs suggesting that, as overpowering as Diaz was last year, he's still a work in progress. Although he grew up worshipping Pedro Martinez -- the reason he always wore No. 45 as a starter -- he recently converted to Mariano-ism and made no bones last year about getting issued No. 39, even though 45 was available. The tuft of black fuzz on his chin, which carries hints of menacing closer, has a ways to go. The changeup he has been toying with in spring training is still in the experimental phase. More than anything though, the biggest question mark surrounding Diaz -- who claims he's up to 195 pounds but admits that he's closer to 6-foot-1 than the 6-3 he's listed at -- is how he'll perform over a full six-month season.
"He's a special pitcher. He's a game-changer."
Carlos Correa, Diaz's Team Puerto Rico teammate
As sweet as Sugar was out of the gate last year, his performance soured down the stretch. In late August, after issuing just eight free passes in his first 32 appearances, he walked seven in his next five. He allowed as many hits in his last five games of the year (10) as he did in his first 20 appearances after taking over as closer. In other words, he did exactly what you might expect from a hundred-somethin'-pounder throwing a hundred-somethin' fastball.
"He got tired," says Dipoto, "We didn't see a drop-off in velocity, but we saw a drop-off in command. All the sudden, the arm slot started moving around and he wasn't dotting it up like he had been. But he came in this year fully understanding what it's like to pitch as a reliever." Good thing, too, because if the past few months are any indication, the Mariners are all-in on The Edwin Diaz Closer Project.
After watching Seattle go close-but-no-cigar in 2016, Dipoto spent the offseason looking a lot like a GM hell-bent on bringing Seattle its first AL West title since 2001. In November, he acquired shortstop Jean Segura from Arizona as part of a blockbuster, five-player swap. In January, he traded for outfielder Jarrod Dyson and starter Yovani Gallardo in separate deals on the same day. The week after, he sent three players to Tampa Bay in exchange for lefty Drew Smyly. If you're scoring at home, that's major renovations to the infield, outfield and rotation. Meanwhile, the back end of the bullpen remains unchanged, anchored by a spindly 22-year-old without a theme song. For the record, Edwin Diaz isn't running from the challenge, just like he didn't run from that swarm of bees.
"I like the pressure," he says. "I like being a reliever."