Despite the cries from the desert, from members of the organization and fans alike, it’s difficult to call the Arizona Diamondbacks a legitimate threat out of the National League. At least at this point. Sure, additions like Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller are more than tantalizing, but there’s still quite a bit to be determined, both on the mound and behind the pitching staff, before we’re ready to declare this team contenders in a tough National League West. And when one sorts through the stack of questions that this Arizona club features, a lot of the focus tends to shift to the infield.
Coming into the spring, the Diamondbacks had a rather murky picture of what their infield could look like. There was Paul Goldschmidt and, well, Paul Goldschmidt. Welington Castillo is likely a lock behind the dish as well, with the pipeline somewhat devoid of MLB-ready catching talent. Which leaves second, shortstop, and third base quite open, with a handful of players to fit into those three slots: Chris Owings, Jean Segura, Nick Ahmed, Jake Lamb, Phil Gosselin, and Brandon Drury. That’s six guys for three slots, plus one or two that’ll serve as a backup when the regular season gets underway, pending injury.
The question we’re attempting to answer here is this: What does the best possible infield for the Arizona Diamondbacks look like? The Diamondbacks have been an offensive force during the exhibition season, whatever that means during March, and these middle infielders have been in the thick of it. Segura is swinging it well, as is Ahmed. Owings, Lamb, and Drury have all been steady as well. But while taking this minuscule sample into account only slightly, and judging these guys based primarily off of past performance (both at the major league level and minor league ranks), who should really be nabbing a starting gig by the time April rolls around?
Coming into the spring, Chris Owings was the “frontrunner” for this spot. But coming off of the year he had last year, both in the field and at the plate, it was essentially a wide-open competition. Many assumed that the acquisition of Jean Segura meant that Segura would slot in at second, while Nick Ahmed continued to patrol shortstop, which would mean that Chris Owings would serve as something of an infield utility man. As we wrap up another week of spring ball, that could very well be a logical solution.
With the upside that he possesses, it’s easy to forget just how awful Owings was last season. He reached base at a clip of only .264, his splits were bad (.171 vs. LHP, .244 vs. RHP), and he brought very little pop to the equation to help make up for it, with an ISO of only .095. Now, he’s hitting a decent .321 this spring across 28 at-bats, and there was some upside demonstrated in his time in the minor leagues (slashed .330/.359/.482/.841 in Triple-A in 2013). But it’s not as if there was a small sample size to judge him on last year. He had over 550 plate appearances. He could figure it out, sure, but it’s not as if there’s a saving grace in his defense like there may be with Ahmed or Segura (-4.6 Def rating according to FanGraphs). Perhaps getting him back to Triple-A and letting him work some things out with a full slate of playing time would benefit him, or maybe the Diamondbacks feel he’d serve that utility infielder role well. With Segura and Ahmed still in the mix, though, it’s hard to rationalize starting him at second.
That’s not so say that either Segura or Ahmed are any sort of offensive juggernaut. However, each is having a stellar spring to this point, and there are some signs in their past performance that could indicate enough offensive upside to make them a quality middle infield tandem, with Ahmed remaining at short and Segura at second. Segura, in particular, presents an intriguing entity for the Diamondbacks, based off of the spring that he’s had.
Through 24 ABs, Segura has already recorded 14 hits, including going seven for his first eight in Cactus League play. He’s hitting .583 in the spring. Say what you want about sample size, production like that, even in the spring season, is going to be hard to ignore. And there’s something of a basis for it. In 2013, Segura was an above average offensive player, with a wRC+ of 105, and a slash of .294/.329/.423/.752. That’s a far cry from the -0.1 and 0.3 WAR player he was the last two years in Milwaukee. His swing trends are interesting, and don’t provide a ton of insight into his struggles. But he did swing at more pitches overall and made far less impressive contact. That past success could indicate a change of scenery was what Segura really needed, and this spring might just be indicating that thus far.
Verdict: Unless Owings catches fire in the spring, get Segura the bulk of the starts at second.
It’s difficult to sit here and praise Nick Ahmed after making disparaging remarks about Chris Owings. The two posted similar numbers last year, as neither was effective in any way on offense. The difference is that Ahmed had significantly less plate appearances (459 for the year) and actually hit quite well off of left-handed pitching with a .296 average. Additionally, Ahmed posted a putrid .247 BABIP, whereas Owings went for a .305 mark. So he ran into some bad luck as well.
Like Segura, Ahmed is also having himself a spring. He’s hitting .462 during the exhibition season. Where he sets himself apart from a guy like Owings, despite being lumped in with him because of his offensive struggles, is his elite defense. The defensive aspect alone makes Ahmed a premium quantity. He posted the fourth highest Def rating among MLB shortstops, with 20 Defensive Runs Saved (second highest total) and a UZR of 11.3, good for third. With defense being so valued in today’s game, it’s difficult to see the Diamondbacks taking away plate appearances from Ahmed in 2016, let alone trading him all together, despite the logjam.
A middle infield of Ahmed and Segura could be dynamite for an already quality defensive club, like Arizona. Segura is, in his own right, an above average defensive player. Giving Ahmed regular at-bats, as well as him breaking out of some of that bad luck, could allow him to grow as an offensive player. If he could be anywhere near average as a hitter, he could be among the game’s better shortstops. Even with the handful of infielders that the Diamondbacks possess, supplanting Nick Ahmed likely is not in their best interest.
Verdict: Give Ahmed the starts at short.
Third base isn’t quite the quandary for the Diamondbacks that the middle infield is. This would appear to be Jake Lamb’s job to lose. And there’s some upside there, to be sure. He overhauled his swing during the offseason and is having a quality spring to date. He benefited from a .344 BABIP last year, which contributed to his .263 average and .331 OBP. wRC+ had him below average, at a figure of 92, but he was also limited to only 390 plate appearances and dealt with sapped power because of a lingering foot injury.
Completely healthy and having made some positive changes to that swing that’ll help him get to the ball faster, Lamb could be a breakout player for these Diamondbacks. He hits the ball hard (35.9% hard hit percentage) and makes regular contact (76.6%). If he can tap into that power a bit, something that should happen given his renewed health, he’s an asset to the Diamondbacks. That status is due to two main elements: he plays good defense at third, something that virtually no one else on the roster (save maybe Brandon Drury) can provide, and he’s a left-handed bat, something that doesn’t exist at all on this infield.
Verdict: Much easier than the middle infield, this job is Lamb’s to lose.
So what does that mean for those that could potentially be on the outside looking in? When you consider the total package, including offensive upside, defensive play, and even a speed/baserunning factor, these are the three that should make up those positions: Segura at second, Ahmed at short, and Lamb at third. Owings could serve as a utilityman on the infield, while Phil Gosselin, who we’ve evaded talking about throughout this post, is likely better suited for a backup role anyway. Especially when you consider his relatively limited ceiling against the other infielders that the Diamondbacks employ.
The real wild card here is Brandon Drury. He’s a good-looking prospect who is having a strong spring in his own right (.483 OBP with a pair of home runs). He posted good power numbers before 2015 and doesn’t strike out a ton. He had wRC+ figures of 138, 128, 128, and 127 at four different minor league levels. There is offensive upside to be had there, just a lack of a spot. He’s a third baseman first, but can play second and short. But with a young talent with higher offensive upside than the likes of Owings or Gosselin, it may behoove the D-Backs to pack him in Triple-A until the first injury or first slump from an infielder.
The trade route still remains a possibility as well, with someone like Owings finding his way out of town. Even though Ahmed’s name has been mentioned, it’s difficult to see them moving him given that elite defense. When you consider the spring Segura’s having offensively, in addition to the quality defense that he provides, as well as the upside of Jake Lamb, it’s hard to find a better infield combination for the Diamondbacks than one that involves those three. Of course, there’s still a bit of time for things to take shape in the spring, so things can still happen to derail all of this. Either way, it’s another intriguing thing to add to the list for an already interesting Arizona Diamondbacks club.
**Statistics via FanGraphs