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Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training Questions, #3: Setting a shortstop

No shortage of options at SS for 2017. Which is how it has been of late for Arizona.

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MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s at short? SnakePit concern level 3.24 out of five.

The shortstop position has been a bit of a revolving door for the D-back, after the end of the full-time Stephen Drew era in 2010. During the six seasons since then, the most regular player was Nick Ahmed in 2015, who had 116 starts. But as context, over that time, 113 MLB shortstops made more starts than Ahmed’s best season - an average of 19 per year. The only others for Arizona to cross even the 50% level in the same period were Didi Gregorius (97 in 2013) and Drew’s 83 starts in 2011, before he broke his ankle sliding into home plate.

2017 may not end up being any different, with no clear leading candidate going into spring training, and manager Torey Lovullo publicly waving a starting flag on the contest for the shortstop job. Here’s a rundown on the potential candidates currently on the 40-man roster, in alphabetical order.

Nick Ahmed

Ahmed is the most experienced possibility for Arizona. His 213 starts at shortstop currently rank fourth on the franchise all-time list. But the first thing Nick needs to do is prove his health, having struggled with a hip issue for almost all of last year. It eventually forced him onto the DL in the second half of July, followed by season-ending microfracture surgery a month later. He said in September, he would be “back to full health” by January, and hoping “to build up a good amount of strength so it won’t have to be weak going into next year.” He’ll bring great defensive skills, but the question will be the same as ever: how far will his offensive limitations negate that?

Daniel Descalso

While Descalso has played more games in his career at third, and spent more innings at second, over the last couple of seasons, with the Rockies, he has seen most time at shortstop. But he was a super-utility guy: even though he only started 66 games for Colorado, that included multiple times at every infield position, and even seven games at left field. In some ways, this flexibility makes him a straight swap for the man DFA’d to make room for him, Phil Gosselin. Though at 30, Descalso is two years older, and likely has a lower output at the plate, with a career 80 OPS+ (Gosselin = 93). However, Descalso is a left-handed bat, which could be a help in balancing Arizona’s line-up.

Domingo Leyba

The youngest player on our 40-man roster, Leyba only turned 21 in September, so is more likely to represent our future at the position, rather than the present. But the future doesn’t look too bad: promoted to Double-A Mobile in mid-July, and playing in a league where the average hitter is four years older, Leyba still batted .301 over 44 games for the BayBears, with a very good K:BB of 22:17. We’ll talk more about him as our countdown to Opening Day continues. But considering we got both Leyba and Robbie Ray in the three-way trade which sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees, this certainly has the potential to end up being one of Dave Stewart’s better trades.

Ketel Marte

An impressive rookie season in 2015 was followed by a textbook example of the sophomore slump for Marte last year, as his OPS dropped over 140 points to just .610. But that wasn’t enough to dissuade Mike Hazen from picking up Marte along with Taijuan Walker in the Jean Segura/Mitch Haniger trade. Hazen said, “We think there’s definitely some upside in the bat and the defensive ability, and the speed and the athleticism. All around, we feel he adds quite a bit to our club.” It’s also possible his 2016 campaign was impacted by something like mono, which he caught in the DR at the All-Star break. It caused Ketel to lose 10 kilos, and perhaps lasted longer than the resulting DL stint, given a second-half where his triple-slash was only .236/.269/.267.

Chris Owings

CO, meanwhile, went the other way, rebounding from a disappointing 2015, with an OPS last year that was 140 points better, at .731. That came despite him turning into Arizona’s emergency center-fielder, where he made 47 starts before the team found a regular replacement in Michael Bourn. If Owings can show that last season was the real deal, he likely provides the best chance of offensive output among the candidates. But the projections are uncertain: ZIPS has him at a .695 OPS, Steamer at .693 and PECOTA at .701. A few more free passes would certainly come in very handy: among the 175 hitters with 450+ PA last year, Owings ranked 159th for walk rate.

Jack Reinheimer

We already talked about Reinheimer over the weekend in the countdown. I would not be surprised to see him make his major-league debut this year - though this opportunity will probably come as the result of an injury to someone above Jack on the depth chart. If you want the Cliff Notes version, he’s similar to Ahmed (oddly, just realized both men have exactly 98 stolen bases in the minor leagues!), with good defensive skills but likely a limited bat. It’s where that balance eventually settles, which will determine whether his role is as an everyday starter, bench player or AAAA prospect. He’s a couple of years younger than Ahmed, at 24, so we’ll see.

Ildemaro Vargas

Also covered recently in our countdown, he is more likely to be at Salt River Fields to get a taste of action and hang around his more experienced colleagues, than with much of a shot at an Opening Day roster spot. That said, he walked more often than he struck out in both the past two seasons - a sharp contrast to the 52:16 K:BB he posted in 2014, before his release and subsequent spell in indie ball. The discipline helped him to post an eye-popping .418 on-base percentage over 49 games for Reno - though you should bear in mind, Tuffy Gosewisch managed a .398 OBP for the Aces last year, in about the same number of PA. #BecauseRenoThatsWhy

Here’s how I would likely rank the above seven men coming into spring training, in terms of how many at-bats they’ll get this year:

  1. Chris Owings
  2. Nick Ahmed
  3. Daniel Descalso
  4. Ketel Marte
  5. Jack Reinheimer
  6. Ildemaro Vargas
  7. Domingo Leyba

How do you see the position shaking down?