For most players, the transition to the Midwest League requires adjustments to remain healthy and productive for the first full season of their lives. Before coming to Wisconsin for the first time most players play short season rookie-level baseball, and relatively brief high school and college seasons. Compared to those schedules, a 140-game season at the A-ball level can be a real grind. For Isan Diaz, it didn't end there.
In 2015 Diaz played 68 games for the Missoula Osprey in the Pioneer League. He appeared in 135 contests with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 2016, and continued the longest season of his life with an assignment to the Arizona Fall League. Add in offseason workouts in Phoenix and a brief stint with the Brewers in Instructional League, and you have a year where Diaz hasn't had much time off. Despite the grueling schedule, however, Diaz said he's still feeling strong.
"I was home for like two weeks, was able to see some family and kind of get the rice and beans back in the system," Diaz said. "I'm trying to regroup and get some energy. It's been a long year, obviously, but I'm already used to it so it's nothing new. As of right now, I'm ready to go play another 140 games. I feel fantastic."
Diaz is one of seven representatives of the Brewers organization on the Salt River Rafters, a team that also includes top prospects from the Diamondbacks, Braves, Rockies and Tigers organizations. The Rafters' coaching staff also includes members of multiple organizations, so Diaz is working with a new hitting coach this fall: Phil Clark spent the regular season working with the AA Erie SeaWolves in the Tigers organization. This is Clark's second year in the AFL.
"Everybody here is a first impression," Clark said. "A lot of guys here in the Fall League, because we're assorted with different teams, it's kind of a first impression for everybody. So it takes a little time. Once the games get started you can see guys play and practice and warm up, and it's a different impression once you start playing games in how they perform and how they prepare."
The AFL has rules regarding player eligibility that largely limit the league to players that have reached the AA level, so Diaz is easily the youngest player on his team this fall. He said that the age and experience gap between him and his teammates has not been an issue.
"It's all right," Diaz said. "They don't treat me any different than any of the other guys. We're all the same here. We're all equal."
Being the youngest player in a prospect-heavy league certainly has helped Diaz draw some attention this fall. However, Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan said the aggressive assignment shouldn't be taken as a sign regarding how the organization plans to handle him in the future.
"We think a lot of Isan and his future," Flanagan said. "But we don't necessarily look at the AFL in that way for any player. We feel he can benefit by facing some advanced pitching and that will help him as he advances in our system in the next year."
For his part, Diaz noted the opportunity to learn from more advanced and experienced players this fall.
"It's great. Just getting to know new guys from different organizations and understand the different ways that they work and play the game is fun," Diaz said. "Being the youngest one and learning from other players kind of helps a player build his game more."
Clark said Diaz's demeanor and preparation were two of the biggest differences between him and some of his more experienced teammates.
"I think him being quiet and not as open as the other guys that have played 3, 4, 5 years, that's obvious. That's to be expected. He's around an older group of guys, so that kind of comes along with it, the fact that he's getting acclimated, meeting new friends and learning how to prepare himself. Some of that conversation is how you prepare yourself, and this is a good situation here in the Fall League."
Diaz split the 2016 regular season between shortstop and second base, and Flanagan cited continued improvement at both positions as one of the organization's goals for him over the next month.
"He had made big strides defensively this past season and the additional time at SS and 2B will be helpful to his continued development," Flanagan said. "Offensively he is going to be facing better pitching, and he can use the time to make the necessary adjustments to prepare to face more of it next year."
Meanwhile, Diaz is also adjusting to not playing every day. After leading the Midwest League by appearing in 135 of Wisconsin's 140 games during the regular season, he's sharing time in the lineup with several organizations' top prospects in Arizona.
"He's probably accustomed to playing every day, and these kids don't play every day," Clark said. "They'll play a day, maybe two days in a row and then have a couple of days off. So there's just some adjustment to things like that that he's had to get acclimated to. But I think we've got a pretty good group of guys here, he's making some new friends, and those are the things from a coaching standpoint that you just kind of want to look over and watch and make sure that he's in a comfortable atmosphere."
Diaz cited the opportunity to learn from the bench in his increased downtime.
"It's all about just trying to learn and make adjustments. The game is all mental," Diaz said. "So I think watching from the bench is never really a bad thing. You learn more on the bench than you do in the field. So lately the bench has been fun, you learn a lot with the coaches and you go out to first base and coach first, and it's been fun."
Through seven games this fall Diaz is only hitting .200, but four of his six hits have gone for extra bases. Flanagan downplayed the importance of statistics from the brief league.
"It's another tool to help the players. And we value their progress. But it is more than just their stats, but the way they are going about their business and handling the challenge of the league," Flanagan said.
With that said, the people who have been around Diaz every day this fall have been impressed with what they've seen.
"The things that he can do at his age, he's pretty impressive," Clark said. "I think he ought to be a pretty good ballplayer. He's quiet, but he's got a lot of power and a lot of bat speed in his bat. He seems to be a pretty good fielder, has some tools."
While it has been a long year for Diaz, extending his season into November should provide him with experiences that will benefit him going forward.
"There's a lot of good players in this clubhouse, and on the other clubs too. This is the best competition you'll find around, and to be able to play here, having good days or bad days is only going to make you better," Diaz said.