Even though the departure of Brandon Drury for the New York Yankees somewhat thinned the herd of potential middle infielders for Arizona, the question remains of how playing time is going to be divided up on the infield. The corner infield spots are not so much the issue here. Paul Goldschmidt will be manning first-base every day, and Jake Lamb will get the vast bulk of starts on the other side, at the hot corner. But quite what happens at the middle infield positions is more in doubt. There are four candidates to play there: in alphabetical order, they are Nick Ahmed, Daniel Descalso, Ketel Marte and Chris Owings. Let’s look at their potential roles.
Nick Ahmed (RHB)
- Starts: SS 254, 2B 1
- vs. RHP: .203/.249/.313 = .562 OPS
- vs. LHP: .283/.332/.423 = .755 OPS
Ahmed will be seeking to bounce-back, healthy, from a shortened 2017 where he managed only 41 starts due to injury. However, the good news is, it was nothing to do with the hip surgery which ended the previous year, and he just caught a dose of D-backs Disease. By which I mean, he got hit on the hand by a pitch in June. The resulting fracture ended his season - it probably wouldn’t have, but Ahmed then wore another pitch during a rehab game in Reno. He’s learned his lesson and will be wearing additional protection on the area this year: “There are still going to be some freak things you can’t protect yourself from, but hopefully the little things you can avoid, we’re all going to try to do.”
The strong performance in his absence by Marte suggested to some Ahmed might have lost his job, but the rumblings coming out of Salt River Fields suggest the position is still his. As has been the case for his entire career, it’s Ahmed’s offense which is the main limitation, especially against right-handed pitching. His defense is never in question: although the metrics do suggest it wasn’t as good in 2017, the team feel this was a result of defensive shifts skewing the numbers. He appears favorite to get most starts, but I would not be surprised to see him rested against righties, especially when the rest of the line-up means the D-backs need an injection of offense from the position.
Daniel Descalso (LHB)
- Starts: 2B 169, 3B 103, SS 141, LF 39, 1B 24
- vs. RHP: .242/.317/.364 = .680 OPS
- vs. LHP: .235/.324/.341 = .665 OPS
I was a little surprised to see the team bringing our Swiss Army Knife back, even though in terms of overall starts, he was not far off the most starts among these four candidates (he had 83, only less than Owings’s 89). While his positional flexibility was certainly a plus - he even pitched mop-up a couple of times - Descalso was sub-replacement level by bWAR (-0.3) and barely at it by fWAR (0.1). While he was impressive off the bench and in high-leverage situation, I’d have said the team could have got that kind of production for league minimum. But the team still exercised their $2 million option on Daniel for 2018, and it seems likely he’ll occupy the same kind of flexible role as last year.
Being the only pure left-handed option among the four probably increases his value. Last year, he had the platoon advantage in 77% of his trips to the plate, and while his career splits are slight, he was significantly better vs. RHP in 2017 (OPS of .767 vs. .588). As our pals at Beyond the Box Score noted in July, Descalso has had this weird ability to come up in big situations consistently over the course of his career. Is this just good luck, or is he a rare example of genuine clutch? Either way, the D-backs will be hoping that it continues into 2018. Failing that, perhaps he can simply move to the bullpen, and test further his current zero ERA and WHIP!
Ketel Marte (SHB)
- Starts: SS 222, 2B 3, 3B 2, CF 2
- vs. RHP: .281/.334/.371 = .705 OPS
- vs. LHP: .235/.290/.342 = .632 OPS
Marte was hardly even on the radar at this point last year, and only joined the main roster at the end of June, after Ahmed’s injury. But there’s no doubt he absolutely seized the chance presented to him: over 73 games, he put up 1.1 bWAR (0.9) with positive numbers on both offense and defense. In December, Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan anointed Ketel his “current favorite breakout pick” for 2018, citing his improved plate discipline and contact. Many people expected Ketel to become the team’s everyday shortstop this season, with Owings occupying the other side of the middle infield. However, Torey Lovullo appears to be leaning to moving Marte over to second-base.
There is some recent precedent for this in Arizona. Before arriving here, Jean Segura had precisely zero major-league experience at second-base, having played his entire career at shortstop. But in 2016, he made 133 2B starts for Arizona, and his UZR/150 there was actually a little better than his figure at SS. Marte made his first start for us at second on Saturday, and appreciates the need for adjustment, saying “It’s kind of different. It’s a little bit hard, but I’ve been practicing a lot on that and I know what kind of talent I have and I know everything is going to be good.” After the game, manager Lovullo said he liked what he saw from Ketel:
“All things considered, I thought his angles to the ball were very good. He turned two. It wasn’t a perfect throw but it looked like his timing was good. An overall summary, I would say it was better than average and there’s a lot of room for him to improve through the reps, and I know that he’s working hard to get comfortable there.”
Chris Owings (RHB)
- Starts: SS 214, 2B 137, CF 47, RF 23
- vs. RHP: .260/.298/.390 = .688 OPS
- vs. LHP: .247/.286/.389 = .675 OPS
Owings seems like the odd-man out here, the team perhaps eventually having run out of patience with him. After putting up a 97 OPS+ over his first 111 games as a 21/22-year-old, hopes were high for CO to become an everyday player. But over the three seasons since, he hasn’t even reached a 90 OPS+, and has been worth 1.5 bWAR over his 363 games. Admittedly, his value probably wasn’t helped by him being suddenly thrust into an outfield role for 2016. But he didn’t have that excuse last year, and his OPS+ dropped from 88 to 83 [his bWAR increased, largely as a result of a higher positional adjustment] He turns 27 in August, and it feels potentially likely his ceiling may have been almost reached.
The versatility, and lack of significant platoon split, is probably why Lovullo is looking at Owings for a “super-utility” role, even if he were to prevail in the contest to start at short. Lovullo said, “We’ve told him along the way that he’s going to continue to maneuver and play all over the field, as he did last year. He’s going to compete at short, and if he wins a spot as a starting shortstop, then he’s also going to continue to play third, second, left and right.” Though if that’s the case, I’m left wondering why we also bothered bringing Descalso back? Outside of handedness at the plate, their skill sets seem too similar, but perhaps the aim will be to have a super-utility platoon of sorts.