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The Wit and Wisdom of Prospect Evaluation: Nick Ahmed

What was the word on Ahmed, before he became an everyday player?

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned earlier today, I was amused by the Fangraphs report from July 2014 on Nick Ahmed, which poured heavy doubt on his ability ever to me "more than a utility infielder for a second division team," I thought I'd crank up the Google time machine, and see what other information I could find on prospect evaluations of Ahmed. I drew the cut-off at January 1, 2015, though even after that, as late as March 23 last year, many people were still surprised by Peter Gammons's report that Ahmed would be the starting shortstop for us. But let's start with comments at the time of the trade, because many of those basically wrote off Ahmed.

Mike Newman, Fangraphs, Jan 24 2013. Newman says neither Ahmed nor Brandon Drury profile as impact talents, though qualifies that by noting few at their level do. "Ahmed has a long, lanky frame at shortstop which is ideal. However, the agility and quickness one would expect from a 40-stolen base player falls a bit flat. Ahmed has the arm strength and lateral movement to stick, but he’s an average defensive shortstop for me." He concludes the best case scenario for Ahmed is a "second division shortstop" and says, "For Arizona, this trade is all about Martin Prado, and hinges upon his tenure in the desert."

Keith Law, ESPN Insider.  Jan 24, 2013.  "Arizona’s return boils down to this: One year of Martin Prado, six years of a fifth starter in Randall Delgado, two fringy prospects, and one non-prospect. If that sounds like a good deal to you, I have some beachfront property in Phoenix to sell you." Despite the snark, this has some truth, with Delgado indeed moving to the bullpen. Still, funny how it works. Those "fringy prospects" Law didn't even bother naming, may end up providing more value than Justin Upton, even including J-Up's last year in San Diego. And their cost savings over Upton's $38.5 million sure would buy a lot of that beachfront property....

Tim Daniels, Bleacher Report, Jan 24, 2013. A mixed bag, yet more optimistic than most. Got to give credit for "Ahmed is probably about two or three seasons away from making a serious impact at the MLB level. He's not a sure thing, but his defensive ability and speed make him a nice addition to the Arizona system, with the potential to get a lot better." However, the accuracy of "The Diamondbacks are not counting on Ahmed to become a superstar." is largely undone by following it with "That's the expectation for Delgado, who should become a stalwart member of the Arizona rotation sooner rather than later." There are times when saying less is the better option.

Moving on to reports from the following year, starting with one close to home.

John Baragona, AZ SnakePit, Mar 10, 2014. "He absolutely needs to take a significant jump offensively if he expects to pass Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius in the organizational pecking order." Or just stay where he is, and watch Owings tank and Gregorius become a Yankee. That approach works too..."Given that he's a great defender he can get away with a little less offense than some other shortstops. I'll put his target OPS in 2014 to get any serious consideration as a ML shortstop at .750." Ahmed ended up posting a .798 OPS that season for Reno, so mission accomplished there.

JD Sussman, Fangraphs, Jul 3, 2014. Here's the infamous one which inspired this piece: "The Diamondbacks thought they were getting a better player. On paper, Ahmed reads well with cliches abound. Wiry.  Athletic frame. Strong arm. Projectable. .. But he’s a few steps too slow to be an everyday shortstop and 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. Though, that may be optimistic." Ouch: almost shades of a certain other infamous assessment of a Diamondbacks' infield prospect. And this one was actually written after Ahmed had made his major-league debut.

Jeff Wizer, Inside the Zona, Nov 11,. 2014. "Ahmed is nearly a finished product, at least as far as prospects go. We know he can play excellent defense at short and second but that he’ll struggle to hit with the authority needed to make him a regular fixture on a winning club. As scouts predicted a few years back, he appears more as a bench player who’s adept enough to make a start or two each week. He also has value as a defensive replacement, so he’s a major league asset right now." Echoes the "bench player" opinion from Fangraphs, though Wiser has no qualms about Ahmed's defense.

I think what the above teaches us, along with the experience of watching Ahmed last season, is that elite-level defense alone, can be virtually sufficient to justify an everyday position. This may be related to the overall decline in offensive production in recent year. A decade ago, in 2006. the average major-league shortstop had a .740 OPS. That's better than the average MLB left-fielder last year (.736). Shortstops were all the way down at .688, and that was actually ten points better than the previous season. In such a low-scoring environment, "good enough" becomes a low bar, especially for those, like Ahmed in their defensive skills.

He's not alone in this combination. Andrelton Simmons was the man whose presence in Atlanta largely made Ahmed surplus to the Braves' requirements; his stellar defense, resulting in a pair of Gold Gloves, has been accompanied by a career .666 OPS (and as low as .617 in 2014). If I may be forgiven for making up a word, that is positively Bloomquistian at the plate, Willie having a .665 career OPS. Adeiny Hechavarria and Gregorius - the man whom the Diamondbacks moved to make room for Ahmed - were also below the .690 mark, while providing positive value with their fielding.

It will be interesting to see if this becomes the "new normal", and how this plays into the evaluation of prospects on their way up through the farm systems - especially at positions like short, where defense is generally considered important. It could well make sense for the bar of acceptable offensive standards in the minors to be lowered, if the "acceptable" level of offense in the majors is also below what it was previously.