Aledmys Diaz autographs a bat Sunday during the Cardinals' Winter Warmup. Four hundred fans paid $75 each for Diaz's autograph. 

By Rob Rains

If Aledmys Diaz needed another reminder of how much his life has changed in the past year, he found it right in front of him on Sunday in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency at the Arch.

Four hundred people were standing in line as Diaz spent two hours signing his name on baseballs, bats, jerseys and photos during the annual Cardinals’ Winter Warmup. To get that autograph, fans had to make a donation of $75 each to Cardinals Care.

“That season changed my life,” Diaz said of 2016, when he went from not making the major-league team out of spring training to becoming an NL All-Star and the projected starting shortstop for the Cardinals for years to come. “I look back and a lot of good things happened last year.”

A series of injuries, first to Jhonny Peralta, helped create a roster opening for Diaz in the majors before he even played a game for Triple A Memphis. He took advantage of the opportunity to play in 111 games, hitting 17 homers with 65 RBIs to go along with an even .300 average.

A broken thumb, the result of being hit by a pitch in Miami on July 31, forced Diaz to miss six weeks and it could be argued might have cost the Cardinals a spot in the postseason. In games Diaz started last year, the Cardinals were 60-43. In the games he didn’t start, the Cardinals were 26-33.

It was, in the words of general manager John Mozeliak, a “breakthrough year.”

“I think he now understands expectations,” Mozeliak said Sunday. “Your real hope is that as he looks into this year, he doesn’t have to put too much pressure on himself. He just needs to continue to be who he was. From a defensive standpoint I think you will see someone who is more comfortable and more at ease at being there every day.”

Diaz, who also was in town to accept an award as the co-St. Louis rookie of the year with reliever Seung Hwan Oh at the annual Baseball Writers dinner Sunday night, confirmed that he does approach the start of spring training differently this year.

“Last year I was a rookie,” he said. “This year I have more confidence. I know the players better and I think I can be a better teammate.

“Last year everything was new. This year I know I can do a job, but at the same time I know I have to work harder because the pitchers know me. I have to be focused every game and use spring training to learn and keep working.”

Diaz said he intends to spend a couple of weeks before the official start of spring training working with Jose Oquendo., who is now a special instructor working out of the organization’s spring training complex in Jupiter, which is close to Diaz’s home.

Other news, notes and quotes from Sunday:

* Mozeliak said the Cardinals are prepared to go to a salary arbitration hearing with both Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. The team has not reached the hearing stage with a player since 1999, with pitcher Darren Oliver.

“Historically that’s not something we’ve had to focus on,” Mozeliak said. “Our strategy was if we file and exchange (figures) then we will take it to a hearing.”

Mozeliak said over the past couple of years he had observers a change in attitude among agents when it came to trying to get a deal completed before the deadline for exchanging salary figures.

“If agents felt like you weren’t going to actually take it to a hearing you usually got a much higher filing number, which would directly pull up the midpoint,” Mozeliak said. “This time around I think you saw much more conservating filing on both sides.”

Martinez filed at $4.25 million while the Cardinals came in at $3.9 million. Wacha asked for $3.2 million while the Cardinals filed at $2.8 million.

“Look at the delta on both Martinez and Wacha, they are not huge, so ultimately these will see hearing rooms and we’ll get to find out how good we are at these,” Mozeliak said.

With or without his salary for 2017 being decided in arbitration, there is still a possibility the Cardinals and Martinez will reach agreement on a long term contract at some point this spring.

“I want my entire career to be with the Cardinals,” Martinez said Sunday.

* The Cardinals will have five players likely to miss a significant portion of spring training because of their participation in the World Baseball Classic. Martinez and Alex Reyes are set to join the team from the Dominican Republic, Yadier Molina will be playing for Puerto Rico, Matt Carpenter for the United States and Seung Hwan Oh for Korea.

Mozeliak said the absence of those players will create some more opportunities for other players, notably Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal. “

* A month before the players report to Jupiter, it sounds as if the only expected competition for a spot in the starting lineup will be at third base, between Jedd Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta.

* Two pitchers who missed all or almost all of last season because of elbow surgery, Mitch Harris and Marco Gonzales, both said they are progressing well in their rehab programs and expect to be ready to pitch in spring training and compete for jobs in the bullpen.

Gonzales also could still project as a starter at Memphis to begin the year.

* Mozeliak said he does not mind being questioned about how the Cardinals plan to compete with the Cubs this year, but he knows his answer is not going to satisfy everybody.

“For us, we’ve been favored many times going into a season and haven’t won,” he said. “I think the best strategy is to try to build a club that you think has a chance to win your division and get to the postseason. A lot of things have to happen along the way and part of that is good fortune. … You look back to last year and we just didn’t quite do that well.

“When I look at where we are today I’m very optimistic about this club. I’m excited about where it’s headed. I would also say that lots of things went well up north last year.

“Nobody in our clubhouse is conceding anything. No one is waving a white flag and saying we are just playing for second. That type of thought process would just be crazy and candidly that’s why all of us are just excited to get this thing started. This is a very competitive group.”

* Apparently the only addition to the roster before the start of spring training could be a player who could compete for the spot as the Cardinals’ fourth or fifth outfielder.

“I have talked about trying to find that lefthanded bat who could play multiple outfield positions, and I;m not going to ignore that between now and spring training, so there is certainly a possibility of that happening,” Mozeliak said.

* Prospect Paul DeJong, expected to be the starting shortop at Memphis, confirmed he will be in the major-league camp as a non-roster invitee. The Cardinals have not released their complete list of non-roster players who will be in camp.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains