The Diamondbacks currently sit with a glut of middle infielders. However, the glut comes only in the form of bodies, not necessarily quality talent. The Diamondbacks elected to move 3B Brandon Drury to 2B instead of the outfield to get him regular ABs. With Drury’s hot spring, Lovullo will be playing him everyday at the position. On the infield, the team already has two strong defenders at the corners and will have a likely liability at 2B. With the dry air and heat in Arizona, the infield plays very fast, putting a premium on infield defense.
Shortstop is still a defense-first position in today’s game. Of the Diamondbacks current set of middle infielders, only Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings are the players that can play a competent shortstop. Ahmed is the superior defender of the two by a considerable margin, which is why he’s been the primary SS in the last two seasons. Behind those two is Ketel Marte, Domingo Leyba, and Ildemaro Vargas on the 40-man roster. Marte and Leyba project to be 2B long term and Vargas is likely a utility infielder. The Diamondbacks control Ahmed through the 2020 season (Age 30) and won’t be arbitration-eligible until after this season.
Further down the farm, the Diamondbacks have Sergio Alcantara and Jazz Chisholm as potential shortstops of the future. Alcantara just finished playing in Class A Kane County for most of the year and has yet to move up in full-season ball, although his 2016 season was very encouraging in terms of player development. Chisholm had a solid offensive season in the Pioneer League, but given his young age and him being at least a year behind Alcantara on the organization ladder, the team needs a competent player that can handle the position between now and 2020.
Last season, we saw how poor defense negatively affected the pitching staff. While Sabremetrics try their best to project the skill level of a pitcher when defense is not factored in, with numbers such as FIP and xFIP. It’s solid for evaluating pitchers in a vacuum, but in reality you can’t completely factor out defense as well because no two teams have similar caliber defenses. A pitcher is going to pitch differently based on the quality of the defense behind him. The pitcher’s and the guys playing behind him are all tasked with limiting the amount of runs the opponent will score. The Diamondbacks play their home games in a favorable offensive environment and another 20+ games with similar park factors on the road every season. They will score a ton of runs with the amount of talent they have in the lineup.
Ahmed isn’t a great offensive powerhouse at the position. He’s posted a career wRC+ of 54 and an OBP of .268. Despite that, Ahmed has the same WAR than Owings in 600 fewer plate appearances. In 2015, Ahmed posted a 2.5 bWAR season in large part due to his bat not stealing value from his glove. That season likely represents his ceiling as a player, which is good enough for him to be an everyday player. There are options where Ahmed and Owings can co-exist on the same field, especially if Owings can develop into a super utility player. Owings is a safer bet to give you 2.0 WAR with the bat being 20% better than Ahmed over his career and Owings being a better athlete on the basepaths. However, despite the speed increase, Ahmed is still significantly better at shortstop defensively.
Even if you’re pessimistic about Ahmed’s recovery from microfracture surgery on his hip, it would be a mistake to move him to another team. The Diamondbacks have repeatedly made the mistake of shipping out young talent only to watch them thrive elsewhere. In a deal for what will be 4 years of control on Ahmed, the best they could get in a trade is a lottery ticket prospect whose ceiling might be on par with Ahmed’s. With that much team control available, I’d rather roll the dice on a player who was an elite defender in the past and has upside of more than 2 WAR at SS. There isn’t a prospect who is ready to take the SS position from Ahmed and I’m skeptical that Owings provides extra upside over Ahmed, even with the higher floor. Given the lack of quality SS depth behind him and the four years of control for Ahmed, it would be a mistake to move Ahmed even in a rebuild.