AnalysisNL West

D-backs’ long-term shortstop layout

As the upcoming August 2nd trade deadline looms over every team, Diamondbacks’ General Manager Mike Hazen shared the organization’s plans leading up to then on Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke last Wednesday, July 20th.  Hazen, like usual, held a flexible stance on potential deals to improve the organization while not actually revealing any details about what that would entail. Before yesterday, however, Hazen last spoke with the media regarding the trade deadline just over a month ago, on June 14th, and he explained how the club’s performance leading up to August 2nd will determine his move to either buy or sell – or to stand pat. Then, the Diamondbacks held a subpar – yet still passable – 24-29 record and were six-and-a-half games removed from a Wild Card spot. Now – 46 games later – Arizona has struggled to make up ground and find themselves in last place in the star-studded NL West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers remain the team to beat. The chance of Arizona stretching its regular season into the postseason is now slimmer than when Hazen claimed an open-minded position last month about the deadline. Most probably already get an idea of which direction Arizona will lean this final couple of days, especially after left fielder David Peralta was traded this morning to the Tampa Bay Rays in what could be the first of several moves by the front office this deadline.

It’s hard to not feel a sense of déjà vu about the Diamondbacks, as 2022 could result in the fifth straight season the ballclub comes up short of playoff baseball. Since the club’s last postseason appearance in 2017, several spots around the diamond have been filled by a revolving door largely by prospects and a few travelled veterans. The process of sorting through the farm system and finding the next set of players to propel the ballclub back to a competitive roster has unquestionably been a tall order. The club, to its benefit, still holds a few veteran pieces from its last postseason run for some relief. 

David Peralta marked his territory in left field long ago, as his production the last eight seasons cemented him as an essential player to the wavering and, at times, insufficient lineup. His modest contract of $7 million figures and a club with minimal chance of reaching the postseason were two key ingredients to cook up a mid-season trade.

Alongside Peralta stands Nick Ahmed, who, when healthy, had been relied on by Arizona just as much and long as Peralta. The pair were tied for the longest-tenured player on the club, until Ahmed took the crown earlier today. Despite being under club control through next season, Arizona could hold a plan for Ahmed similar to Peralta.

Contrary to a good chunk of big leaguers, Nick Ahmed’s offensive and defensive profile hardly shifted in his journey from college to the big leagues. A product of University of Connecticut, where he stood a hundred feet or so in front of outfielder George Springer, Ahmed’s strong arm and athleticism molded him into an elite defender at shortstop. The Atlanta Braves were clearly enticed by his upside by drafting the Massachusetts native in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft. Since then, his performance over the last decade has indisputably lived up to the prototypical defensively-gifted albeit light-hitting shortstop. Year in and year out, his superior defense is regarded as one of the best at any position in the game today. Several defensive metrics peg Ahmed as a top-notch defender, including “Outs Above Average,” where fellow shortstop Francisco Lindor has been neck and neck with Ahmed for the crown since 2016, and it’s not even close. Similarly, Fangraphs’ “Defensive Runs Saved” labels Ahmed, nicknamed “Slick Nick” for his defensive prowess, as the sixth-best defender in the game and second-best at the premium position since 2015, when he emerged as a full-time player. His work at the premium position hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed, however, as he currently holds two Gold Glove awards. He probably would boast a few more if it weren’t for the Giants’ fan-favorite and four-time winner, Brandon Crawford, who, like Ahmed, is tied for the longest-tenured player on his ballclub. 

Aside from his long-standing track record as a defensive specimen, Ahmed’s offensive value has basically been just as poor as his defense has been exceptional. Since 2015, only two MLB batters amongst the 143 with as many plate appearances (2,824) as Ahmed have batted worse per wRC+, an index number that measures all offensive value. Ahmed’s ceiling as an all-around player has always been suppressed by his bottom-of-the-barrel hit profile.

Nick Ahmed 2014-2020, per Fangraphs and Baseball Savant

The three seasons prior to last (‘18-’20), however, yielded an offensive uptick that might’ve altered the value and perception of the Massachusetts native if his injuries didn’t persist. In 2018 through 2020, Nick Ahmed significantly increased his power and batted in line with the OPS+ average for shortstops. His progress earned him a 4-year, $32.5 million contract extension through the 2023 season.

The first four seasons for Ahmed in the bigs were much different, as he displayed his elite defensive skills while showing little promise with a bat. Most around the game probably didn’t look twice when evaluating his potential, as his production with a bat, or lack thereof, remained stagnant and one of the worst in the bigs. Even though his production of a 90 OPS+ was still below the league average, a defense-first ballplayer who can muster any level of offensive value at perhaps the most demanding defensive position would reap benefits for its club.

Entering 2021, a breakout season looked to be in store for Nick Ahmed following his three promising prior seasons. The Diamondbacks were in desperate need of its veterans to brace a lineup that was bound to undergo lots of turnover in the coming months. Unfortunately, Ahmed reverted to the ineffectual bat associated with the first half of his major-league career. The regular season proved to be an immense struggle for Ahmed with a bat, even relative to his usual putrid production. Ahmed, to his credit, battled a nagging right shoulder injury that costed him about one month of the ‘21 regular season. His injury certainly could’ve been a factor in his struggle at the plate. Regardless, his dismal 64 wRC+ in 129 games, where only two batters across MLB – Kevin Newman and Andrelton Simmons – batted poorer was somewhat unexpected after his improvements at the plate. Fortunately for Ahmed, his high-caliber defense as well as the lack of a ripe shortstop prospect helped secure his spot – for the time being.

Geraldo Perdomo has blossomed into a coveted prospect since signing with Arizona from the Dominican Republic in 2017. The switch-hitter’s tools grade identical to Ahmed’s, as scouts raved about his athleticism and defense since joining professional ball. Throughout his progression in the minors, Perdomo impressed the industry by his first-class defense and numerous web gem-worthy plays along the way. Unlike Ahmed, Perdomo has shown flashes of great offensive potential since the beginning, as he posted nearly a 15% walk rate and .400 OBP at each level in part due to his high-end plate discipline and recognition. After three, strong consecutive minor-league seasons where he excelled on both sides of the ball, Perdomo hit his first roadblock in 2020, as the pandemic scratched off all minor-league baseball entirely and resorted prospects to the alternate training site and instructional league. To begin the makeshift season, a COVID diagnosis prevented him from working on his development with the organization. Then, a wild pitch broke his foot that further sidelined him taking the field. His health-related obstacles continued into 2021, as shoulder tendinitis limited his activity in spring training. After the various setbacks, all signs looked towards Perdomo pushing on his development in the minor leagues to begin the year. However, Nick Ahmed was dealing with his own injuries that left him on the injured list to begin the ‘21 regular season.

Perdomo got his first taste of the big leagues in March of 2021, although he tallied a minimal 13 plate appearances before getting demoted to AA. There, Perdomo maintained his plate discipline but struggled to produce solid batted-ball contact, as he batted to a .231/.351/.357 in 82 games. This season, the shortstop situation is similar to the beginning of last. Ahmed is out for the year after undergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder, and Perdomo has been the starting shortstop, where his woes at the plate have continued, as he’s batting to a 67 OPS+, and his power ranks in the bottom 10 percent per hard-hit rate and barrel% in 90 games.

He’s maintained elite plate discipline per his Chase rate and a well above-average walk rate at 11 percent. While not swinging at unfavorable pitches clearly has generated some success at the plate, his trouble swinging at and producing decent batted-ball contact has manufactured a fruitless bat so far. Surprisingly, his offensive game hasn’t been the only deficiency this season. The usual top-of-the-line defense throughout his career grades as one of the worst at the premium position this season per Outs Above Average in the 5th percentile. Similarly, per Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved, Perdomo ranks fourth worst amongst 25 qualified shortstops.

While Perdomo’s long-term promotion to the bigs was probably premature and a result of Ahmed’s prolonged shoulder problem, Arizona might bite the bullet for the remainder of the season with Perdomo. Due to the dim chance of the ballclub reaching the postseason, Mike Hazen is quite unlikely to acquire players who could be a direct impact to the roster, let alone throw another hat in the ring at a position where a veteran and a prospect both make a compelling case.

Although reaching the postseason is the goal for each team, the fleeting chance of playoff contention enables the organization to provide several prospects like Perdomo the opportunity to compete at the highest level and develop at their own pace. On the other hand, Perdomo’s poor offensive and defensive results so far should draw some concern from the organization, even despite the unforeseen circumstances. It certainly requires some prospects more time than usual to get their bat going, but the magnitude of his consistent issues, should one’s defense typically shouldn’t take a U-turn, in such an abrupt fashion too.

If Ahmed is ready for Opening Day next season, Arizona will probably retain him and salvage what’s left, as the organization is on the hook for his hefty salary because he has already accrued five years of major-league service time. In that scenario, both Perdomo and Ahmed’s usage seems unsettled. Barring any health-related issues for either, Arizona would be unable to utilize the two fully on paper at their native position. Both have recently shown potential to act as an everyday shortstop that can handle both sides of the ball. Nick Ahmed’s three strong seasons from 2018 through 2020 was either a legitimate step forward in his performance or a fluke in an otherwise inadequate offensive career.

It could be too late to determine which one proves to be true going forward. Geraldo Perdomo is candidly more vital to the roster than Ahmed with Arizona’s eyes set on a long-term layout for its young ballclub. Finding a way for Perdomo to get back on track to his esteemed pedigree is imperative for the club to assemble its 26-man roster. Arizona could believe that Perdomo’s struggles are only temporary, and that he can iron out his issues at big-league level. In that case, Ahmed’s litany of injuries only gives Arizona one more reason to apply its current shortstop configuration to next season. Conversely, if Arizona thinks Perdomo is due for a demotion and try to turn back the clock on his development, the club will surely rely heavily on a Ahmed to bounce back year in what could be his tenth and final season in a Diamondbacks uniform. Throughout the remainder of this mediocre season, Arizona will surely seek to construct a more resilient and sustainable structure to its shortstop arrangement going forward.

Featured Photo: @Dbacks/ Twitter

Paul Beckman

Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Paul Beckman graduated from Arizona State University in 2022.

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