Nick Ahmed joined the Diamondbacks organization way back in 2013 as part of the trade that sent Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta. He is also the only player from all those involved in the trade to still be playing with the team which traded for him. In fact, other than Justin Upton, who is playing alongside Mike Trout in Los Angeles, he is the only one still in baseball (though Brandon Drury is a free agent). Ahmed made his debut one season after being acquired, when he beat out Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius for the job of primary shortstop, based almost exclusively on his acumen with his glove. Ahmed’s early seasons with the bat made him a borderline player. He always seemed to be one bad week away from being out of the game. On the other hand, his peripherals always looked like someone experiencing more than their fair share of poor luck.
Ahmed was very aware of where his game was lacking. In response, he made sure he provided all the value he could in the field while continuing to work with coaches on his approach at the plate. He became more aggressive with attacking pitches. Over time, he made small improvements with his final results. In 2015, those improvements, along with his superior glove, allowed him to win the starting job at shortstop in another spring competition for the job. Then, in 2016, the Diamondbacks picked up Jean Segura. Once again, Ahmed proved up to the task of defending his role as starter, improving at both the plate and, somewhat surprisingly, even in the field. The tandem of Ahmed and Segura on the infield was something special to watch.
In 2017, Ahmed had a down season, marred by injuries both at the beginning and the end. There were some questions if he would be able to bounce back from a hip injury that clearly sapped his defensive ability. He responded in 2018 by posting 3.9 dWAR on the back of an astounding 30 runs saved. This came along with yet another improvement with the bat, one that put Ahmed into positive value territory at the plate, as well as in the field. That season saw Ahmed win his first Gold Glove. Then, in 2019, he won himself a second Gold Glove. He also did more than just marginally improve with the bat, he took a rather big step, becoming a perfectly capable hitter for a shortstop, posting a 92 OPS+ and 91 wRC+. This earned Ahmed a 4-year/$32.5 million contract to avoid arbitration heading into the 2020 season.
Statistically speaking, Slick Nick probably lost a step defensively in 2020. However, the 2020 season is one of oddness and small sample sizes. While there is no denying that Ahmed’s defense in the early-going did not pass the eye test of being elite, his defense improved as the season wore on. By the end of the season, he was once again making the sorts of plays he was known for.
Whether his improvement later in the season is merely a product of sequencing, or it is a product of getting a slow start thanks to the aborted offseason, it is difficult to tell. Ahmed’s age would suggest he is due to lose a step, but his tireless work ethic gives reason to believe he might still have a couple of impressive defensive seasons in the tank.
At the plate, Ahmed’s year-to-year improvement with the bat continued. While he is no Trevor Story or Fernando Tatis Jr. at the plate, he has become a respectable hitting shortstop. In 2020 he marginally improved again to a 94 OPS+. This was highlighted when he had himself a decent week of output all in the first two innings of one game against the Oakland A’s.
On the whole, Ahmed provided 1.6 bWAR/1.2 fWAR to the Diamondbacks in 2020. That rate of output left him only a bit off the pace from his previous two seasons. With a full season of games and a proper spring training unmarred by stoppages and pandemic concerns, it is not a stretch to imagine he could have managed another season in excess of 3.5 WAR. Certainly, in a season marked by under-performance almost across the board for the Diamondbacks, Ahmed stood out as one of the exceptions.
Next season is going to be an important one for Ahmed. The 2021 season is likely to give everyone better answers as to whether or not Ahmed has indeed lost a step defensively, or if he, like most everyone else in baseball, simply got off to a slow start in 2020. Father Time remains unbeaten though. It is possible that he did get off to a slow start and that one extra year on the calendar may still come into play now. With three seasons still left on his deal and the Diamondbacks having no other viable shortstops (save possibly Ketel Marte), Ahmed’s status as the team’s starting shortstop for 2021 seems like one of the safest bets to be made regarding the roster for next season. However, if the Diamondbacks have a repeat of 2020, look for Ahmed to be among those most likely to be traded. Even if it does turn out that he has lost a step, he was so far ahead of the curve that he will still be an above average defender with what is now a league average bat for the position. That makes him a tradeable player. Look for competitive teams that lose out on the Simmons/Gregorius/Semien trio to have interest in Ahmed should he become available.