Teams in search of a young, glove-first, shortstop for 2015 should call the Diamondbacks and inquire after Nick Ahmed. Without even mentioning the rookie’s name, his general manager, Kevin Towers, just declared him expendable.
“In a perfect world, long term, I think hopefully it’s Didi [Gregorious] and C.O. (Chris Owings) with Hilly kind of moving around from second to third,” Towers told MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert Monday “My gut is that I think it will work. I love both of those guys. Didi is probably our best shortstop defensively. C.O. is probably the best offensive middle infielder we have. He seems to be comfortable at second. We’ll have a chance to see him a lot in September and see how he looks.”
In Gregorious, Owings, and Ahmed, Arizona has long had a surplus of under-25 talent at shortstop, but never have they outright stated a preference for an individual player or players. This plan would put Owings, who just returned from the disabled list on Tuesday, as the starter at second, Gregorious at shortstop, and veteran Aaron Hill (Hilly) at third, leaving no room on the diamond for Ahmed, who is coming off a strong year in Triple-A and appears ready for a major league assignment.
The inclusion of Owings as a long-term contributor should come as little surprise. Arizona’s partiality towards the 22 year old Owings has been clear since Spring Training, when the D-Backs made him their everyday shortstop, optioning Gregorious, the incumbent from 2013, to Triple-A Reno. The rookie, who entered the season ranked as the No.66 prospect in baseball, rewarded them by slugging .458 with a .771 OPS before dislocating his shoulder on June 25.
Whether Gregorious or Ahmed fit into Arizona’s future has been less clear. Gregorious flashed a strong glove and posted a respectable .704 OPS in 404 plate appearances as the team’s starter in 2013. However, when 2014 rosters were announced, he found himself back in Reno. And when Owings hit the disabled list, Gregorious was passed over again. Arizona called up Ahmed, who was having a career year - .324/.390/.431 slash line – at Triple-A, to start at short instead. Gregorious, meanwhile spelled Aaron hill at second and the rookie at short.
In his brief tour of the majors, Ahmed, 24, hit just .228 with three extra base hits and two walks over 61 plate appearances. He struggled. But then again, so has Gregorious. He took over the reigns full-time when Ahmed was demoted on August sixth, and is hitting just .134 with a .193 on base percentage and a .437 OPS in 89 plate appearances since.. That lowered his already mediocre season line to a meek .207/.281/.361.
Justifying his plan, Kevin Towers pointed to Gregrorious’s superb range and arm at short. Though the advanced metrics don’t love his glove, the sample size is small and scouts have had nothing but praise for it. Yet Ahmed, one of the major components in the 2013 trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, has also long been known for his superior defense.
Ultimately it seems, major league experience won out. Ahmed has just major league 19 games on his ledger, Gregorious has 173. And Ahmed’s numbers in Triple-A, while impressive, are boosted by the hitter-friendly environment of the Pacific Coast League in general and Reno in particular. Last year in Double-A, a more neutral environment, he hit just .236, and this season, his OPS is .665 on the road, compared to the .885 mark he posted in the thin Reno air.
Hope that Ahmed could possibly carve out a backup role for 2015 were squashed by Towers, who sang the praises of veteran utility infielder Cliff Pennington.
“Veteran leadership, he can play multiple positions,” Towers said of Pennington. “Having him kind of there with those two guys [Owings and Gregorius] is good.”
Two guys, not three. Dynamics could change down the stretch, when Ahmed, Owings, and Gregorious play on the same roster for the first time. Ahmed could play spectacularly, the two favorites could look abysmal and force the team to re-consider. But for now, it seems as though the import from Atlanta is the odd shortstop out. New York Mets, New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, any team in need of a young, slick fielding shortstop, ready the phones.