JUPITER, Fla. -- There were moments on March 8 when Aledmys Diaz no longer looked like the team's shortstop of the future, but rather the one they needed now.
A day after learning that Jhonny Peralta had suffered a significant thumb injury, the Cardinals watched a 25-year-old seize the Grapefruit League stage with a four-hit day. Manager Mike Matheny said afterward that while the timing of Diaz's performance wasn't to be overstated, the impact of it could be.
Sure enough, 12 days after that standout showing, the Cardinals opted for patience over promise, optioning Diaz to Triple-A Memphis, where he can get everyday exposure. The strong finish to Diaz's 2015 season and exciting impression he left this spring couldn't erase the reality that he has 14 games experience above the Double-A level. But his assignment as the Triple-A starting shortstop also means he's not far away.
"You talk about what you saw a year ago compared to what we witnessed here this spring, and it's radically improved," Matheny said. "I'm just excited for him and the prospect of what he could be if he continues to improve. He needs to play to get better. He's real close."
How close will be dependent upon how he performs in Memphis and how the shortstop coverage is in St. Louis. With options including Ruben Tejada and Jedd Gyorko, the Cardinals believe they have the opportunity to season Diaz a bit longer without sacrificing the Major League product.
Though it's been two years now since the Cardinals signed the Cuban defector, injuries have interrupted Diaz's Minor League climb. But once his body got right, the swing fell into place. Beginning on July 4, Diaz hit .326/.387/.574 with 21 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs over a 39-game span with Double-A Springfield. That earned him a promotion to Memphis, where he hit .380/.448/.620 over two weeks.
In Grapefruit League play, Diaz was 9-for-34.
"I just want to play and be ready for when the time comes," Diaz said before moving to Minor League camp. "I don't want to start thinking about, 'OK, is this my time?' I'm just focusing on being healthy and working hard in the field to help my team win. If they give me an opportunity, I will be ready for that."
That opportunity could come in a pinch if the Cardinals exhaust their Major League shortstop options while awaiting Peralta's return. He could also fit as a backup middle infielder if the club believes he could offer a boost off the bench. But regardless of the role, the Cardinals will leave Florida anticipating contributions from Diaz at some point this year.
"A year ago, it was never even in the conversation that he would be a part of what we're doing," Matheny said. "Now he is, and that, to me, is a great compliment."