We start, as usual, with the standard warning about this front-office and their tendency to be an awful lot more circumspect with regard to public statements than the Kevin Towers regime. We've seen cases before where they've said one thing, and then, almost immediately done the opposite: the trades of Mark Trumbo and Miguel Montero come to mind there. While making tactical sense, it sucks from anyone who has to write about the team, because everything they say has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Conversely, them not saying anything is meaningless. Anyone see Zack Greinke coming, until about three hours before he was signed? So, that said...
On the other hand, on last night's broadcast from Salt River Fields (above), Tony La Russa seemed to go the extra mile to pour cold water on the Nick Ahmed trade rumor suggestions. While I confess a certain resulting nervousness ("Is he over-doing it? This is just a cover to drive up Ahmed's value, isn't it? I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE ANY MORE!!!"), it was still good to hear that the man at the top of the front-office appears to value Ahmed as highly as many fans. That's always a concern with players whose production is more on the defensive side; it would be easy for a casual observer to go, ".226 hitter? Ship him out!"
Easy, and woefully wrong. Because Ahmed showed in 2015 that he is, quite possibly, the best defensive shortstop we have ever had. Both Fangraphs' Fielding Runs Above Average and Baseball-Reference's dWAR had Ahmed putting up the most valuable shortstop campaign with the glove in Diamondbacks history. Looking at the rest of the top five, there's no particular consensus, indicating the two systems are different - so that they agree on Ahmed at #1, would seem to be quite significant. Even though his offense certainly had room for improvement, Nick's defense more than made up for shortcomings at the plate.
It's worth noting he also received relatively scant playing time: only 459 plate-appearances and 116 starts, despite being almost entirely healthy over the season. If you take Ahmed's value, and bump it up by 50% to get the same number of PA as a "true" everyday player like A.J. Pollock (673 PA) or Paul Goldschmidt (695 PA), you're looking at a player who, in his rookie season, would have been worth close to four bWAR. With Ahmed having only just turned 26, on Tuesday, there is still significant room for future growth in his production. No, he's never going to be Cal Ripken with the lumber. But when you're Ozzie Smith with the glove, you don't need to be.
Indeed, being a defense-first player is better in some ways; it's a skill less likely to go into a prolonged slump than offense, in part because it's one where luck is a great deal less significant. My main concern would be that studies have shown defense tends to peak earlier than other skills - by some estimates, for shortstops this can be as young as 25 or 26. If so, that aspect of Ahmed's arsenal is unlikely to grow much further, and any additional value is going to need to come from his bat. However, he's not even arbitration eligible until 2018, and is under team control through the end of 2020, so should represent excellent value for money into the foreseeable future.
The only conditions under which the Diamondbacks should be looking to trade Ahmed, if the return represents a greater improvement to the current team (given "win now" mode) that the loss he represents. If we look at 2015 values from bWAR, we see Ahmed (2.5) would be replaced by either Chris Owings (-0.7) or Jean Segura (-0.0). So, on those performances we'd be looking at a 2.5 win deficit. Given the Cardinals only need to replace Jhonny Peralta for a few months, and he's under (very well-paid) contract through the end of 2017, would they be wiling to give up that much for a half-season rental? Any deal that made sense for Arizona, would be dumb for St. Louis.
Now, it is possible Segura or Owings resurrect themselves in 2016. I certainly hope that's the case; Segura has looked great at the plate this spring, but I would want more than a few weeks of heavily BABIP-driven statistics before I proclaim him well again. However, the Diamondbacks would need both of them to rebound, in order for Ahmed to become surplus to requirements. Otherwise, the 2016 team - one, I stress again, that expects to compete this season - will be significantly worse without Ahmed. Let Owings and Segura prove themselves properly. There is absolutely no rush here, unless the Cardinals make a stupidly generous offer - not exactly their wont.
I said it when discussing the original reports, and I'll say it again. I expect Nick Ahmed to be the starting shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks on Opening Day 2016. As La Russa pointed out last night, these rumors sound like nothing more than press speculation, with no more susbstance than, "Oh, St. Louis is down a shortstop. Who has a surplus? Arizona!" It is quite fascinating though, to see how things have turned out for a player described, less than two years ago, as "a few steps too slow to be an everyday shortstop and [who] doesn’t have the bat for third. Without a better stick, Ahmed won’t be more than a utility infielder for a second division team."
I think I might have to see if I can round up a few more of those!