It wasn’t too long ago that I was daydreaming about a convoluted plan for playing time in the infield that would have seen Didi Gregorius start at shortstop every day against RHP, with Chris Owings and Aaron Hill each shuttling between two positions. But things have changed.
Obviously, the trade that saw Didi Gregorius sent to the Yankees in return for Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba from the Tigers put a crimp in my flights of fancy. The signing of Yasmany Tomas, however, also limits the appeal of moving players around in a complicated time share — especially since the team has been so adamant about trying Tomas at third base for the time being.
A public love letter to Jake Lamb will have to wait until a different day. Suffice it to say: Aaron Hill will almost definitely not be supplementing his second base playing time with some starts at the hot corner. And while Chris Owings could be ready to go at second or short, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that Owings will be the everyday starter at shortstop once he is able to play everyday.
The D-backs still may break camp with four middle infielders on the roster: Hill, Owings, Cliff Pennington, and Nick Ahmed. What kind of production can the D-backs expect from a mix of these four players?
I like to think that we’re pretty good at this baseball analysis stuff. And then I remind myself of Aaron Hill, and I remember how baseball often defies analysis.
Hill has been mediocre, and he’s been solidly plus. We’re only three years removed from Hill’s finest season, one in which he was 33% better than average at creating runs (133 wRC+) and did enough on defense for FanGraphs to consider him a 5.4 win player. That’s near-Goldschmidt, friends, and his 2013 was pretty damned good, too (124 wRC+, 2.0 WAR in just 87 games).
But Hill has been the definition of hit or miss, with year-to-year swings in production that would make Mike Lowell swoon. Hill’s fWAR totals for seasons in which he’s had at least 500 PA: 2.5, 3.5, 3.8, 1.1, 0.4, 5.4, -0.7. In 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2014, he hovered around replacement level. In the other seasons not marred by injury, he’s been one of the top 5 second basemen in the game.
Steamer’s 1.2 WAR projection puts him 24th among second baseman for 2015 (although a few players ahead of him may not play second). Not good, but right on that bubble of just good enough that he’d be difficult to replace with someone better. And there’s a Hill problem that all projections may struggle with: the Jekyll-or-Hyde nature of his production. Hill has either been good, or not good; forced with the decision of having to pick between heads or tails in a coin flip, both Steamer and ZiPS have essentially projected that Hill’s coin would land and rest on its side.
There is reason for optimism, however. As Jack Magruder reported a couple of weeks ago, Hill apparently played much of 2014 through pain from a sore wrist. As many plus hitters like Derrek Lee and Nomar Garciaparra can testify, wrist problems can make an enormous difference at the plate. Four months off could mean getting the Hill of the not-very-recent-but-still-relatively-recent past.
Even if optimism were unreasonable, there’s still every reason to think that Hill will get the lion’s share of playing time at second base. Due $12M for each of the next two seasons, he could theoretically play his way into being good trade bait in July. And even if Hill’s production does manage to balance on the edge of the knife, he makes a little too much money for the D-backs to write him off.
Hill is also a less than ideal candidate to share time. His platoon splits — both last year and for his career — are essentially nonexistent (he’s exactly .270 against both LHP and RHP for his career). He does walk a bit more often against LHP and has a tick more power against them, but the difference isn’t much to write home about.
2013 PCL MVP Chris Owings offers more than a voice I find eerily similar to Jeff Wiser’s; he offers solidly plus defense at 2B, good defense at SS, and the potential for offensive production better than the average hitter (and more certainly, better than the average middle infielder).
It may be hard to read into Owings’s track record, however. When he repeated High-A, he did very well; not so much in a half-season at Double-A. So how much is the thin air and friendly dimensions at Reno responsible for his .330/.359/.482 outburst in Triple-A? And the time he spent playing for the big-league club in 2014 is also fraught with some asterisks. His good-for-a-middle infielder .261/.300/.406 line in 91 games (92 wRC+) could have been — and probably was — dragged down after a June 20 shoulder injury.
As Jim McLennan related on Snake Pit, Owings had an atrocious .208/.256/.236 line after returning from the shoulder issue. Owings spent two months rehabbing an injury that he didn’t even have, and it wasn’t until after the season that, after a consultation with Dr. James Andrews, Owings found out that he had a labrum tear.
The Owings misdiagnosis is arguably the worst mistake by the D-backs in 2014, which is saying a lot — and yet it may not cost them much playing time. Owings says he’s hopeful of making the Opening Day squad, and if he misses that target, it’s unlikely to be by much.
The “fans” who have entered their own predictions at FanGraphs seem to have made that shoulder injury adjustment for Owings, and I’m inclined to agree — especially since ZiPS is also seeing through some of the 2014 murk.
Like Hill, Owings has no real platoon split in the majors (94 wRC+ against pitchers from each side). With Triple-A Reno in his MVP season, however, he had an enormous split… a reverse split. Owings hit .340/.377/.511 against RHP, and just .288/.310/.368 against LHP. That’s just strange. And while it would not be a reason to try to platoon him as if he were left handed, it’s a great reason to not try to hide him against right-handed pitchers.
There definitely were good reasons for the D-backs to tender a contract to Pennington back in November. And while one of them was that he could still be traded after that, another was that he definitely was in a position to help out if one of Owings or Gregorius ended up on the move. Minus one Gregorius, Pennington will grab some additional playing time.
Penny was remarkably helpful to the 2014 club, although in a storm that terrible any lifeboat might seem like a luxury yacht. It’s saying a lot that Pennington had the fifth-highest fWAR total on the 2014 squad among position players (1.5 WAR). It also says a lot that all four of the players ahead of him (Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Ender Inciarte, Owings) missed some significant time during the season.
In the not too distant past, Pennington had the resume that we might expect Owings to have soon; in 2010 and 2011, he was Oakland’s starting shortstop, putting up wRC+ marks of 91 and 92. A difference in defensive marks made one season a 3.4 WAR effort and the other a 1.1 WAR one, but all in all, Pennington has always maintained the look of a player who might start on a handful of clubs but who could also be one of the best backup infielders in the game.
Pennington’s role in 2015 may be significant, as he’s likely to be the first line of defense behind Owings’s shoulder and Hill’s advancing age. It’s unlikely that he’ll hurt the 2015 club, but it’s at least as unlikely that the team will be looking for extra ways to use him, either.
It doesn’t show very much in batting average, but the switch-hitting Pennington has actually been much better against southpaws in his career, creating runs at a well above average clip (123 wRC+). Even the 83 wRC+ he sports against RHP is nothing to shake a stick at, especially with what Pennington offers on defense.
The stats of Owings and Hill may take a bit of a hit next year in that if either or both players get a healthy share of rest days, manager Chip Hale may choose to time them in such a way as to get Pennington some starts against lefties. The club has an interest in making Hill look good in the short term, but they have an even greater interest in making Pennington look enticing.
Slick-fielding Nick Ahmed is sort of the neglected stepchild in this mix, and the least likely to stay on the Active Roster all year. Depending on whether Hill functions as the backup third baseman to start the season (Jordan Pacheco and Nick Punto are other possibilities), there may not be room to carry four middle infielders, and there’s also a non-zero chance that Ahmed plays shortstop full time with Triple-A Reno until more playing time becomes available.
It may have been a desert mirage, but Ahmed put up a more than respectable batting line with Reno in 2014, a .312/.373/.425 triple slash that stands up even to a significant discount. He’s not exactly young, with his 25th birthday coming in mid March, but he still has a chance to be the brightest spot in the Justin Upton trade package.
What truly sets Ahmed apart, however, is his glove. Former Mobile manager Andy Green — who could end up coaching Ahmed again in Phoenix — is on record saying that he’s never seen anyone better, minors or majors. We saw flashes of Ahmed’s glovework with the D-backs last year, but we still have a long ways to go before we can anoint Ahmed the second coming of Omar Vizquel.
Ahmed probably does fall into a projections crevasse, and probably unfairly; the defensive part of his minor league body of work doesn’t translate, and he has just enough of a major league footprint for that to be misleading. Ahmed’s calling card will always be that glove, and if it’s as good as advertised, a relatively empty .231 batting average would still make Ahmed a 3 win player.
As a part-timer, count Ahmed in with Hill and Owings as players without an obvious platoon split. With Reno in 2014, Ahmed went .301/.349/.422 against RHP and .283/.362/.359 against LHP — meaning that he was a bit more successful in being selective when he enjoyed the platoon advantage, but he did a lot less in terms of putting the ball in play. Yet another middle infield option that is not a promising platoon player.
Fitting These Guys Together
Ahmed’s skill set isn’t identical to Pennington’s, but his career could end up filling a similar role: great backup, and good enough overall that if the team lost a starter to injury for a couple months at a time, the team wouldn’t feel compelled to go find a different replacement. That’s really not bad.
At the risk of sounding like I’m complaining, you can see from the above why Gregorius wasn’t necessarily the best guy to move. Gregorius had a huge platoon split — and he hit from the left side, making him a good partner for any of the other four players. Alas, there is no grand scheme to be had here.
My guess — and my vote — is that Ahmed will start the season with Triple-A Reno as the starter there, unless Owings isn’t ready to be trusted full time. Regardless, Hill is the starter at second, Owings the principal option at short, and Pennington is likely to start the year as the backup.
The D-backs have a significant incentive to let Owings go back to his natural position of shortstop, so much so that when Hill scores a day off, Pennington will probably play at second, rather than pushing Owings there. And the team will probably mix in Pennington liberally. If there’s enough room for all four middle infielders to make the team, look for Pennington to get used fairly frequently as a pinch hitter (especially against lefties).
By July, though, the D-backs will probably start looking for a profitable way to move Pennington, regardless of whether they’re in the race. Ahmed may not be a long term solution at shortstop, but by mid July, the D-backs will have Ahmed back in the perfect service time situation of missing the Super Two cutoff.
None of the four middle infielders on the team is likely to knock our socks off in 2015, although both Owings and Hill have a decent chance (25%?) of posting seasons of more than 3 wins. With an extra backup option built in, middle infield is unlikely to be a part of the roster that hurts Arizona this season. It’s just not that likely to prop the team up, either.
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