The news of the Trevor Cahill trade and the insertion Archie Bradley was surely surprising. But the news that Nick Ahmed was going to start over Aaron Hill, shifting Chris Owings to second base, was perhaps even more of a shock. And not a bad shock necessarily as Ahmed had a fantastic spring, but a shock nonetheless. The transition will make the Diamondbacks much more fun to watch and seemingly energized fans, but does it make the club better? That’s certainly worth exploring.
In fact, although I was initially excited, I wasn’t sure the move made the team better. Quoting myself, which might be a no-no, but oh well:
The #Dbacks fun meter went way up in the last two days. The win meter may not have moved.
— Jeff Wiser (@OutfieldGrass24) April 3, 2015
Surely this move, coupled with the demotion of Yasmany Tomas, changes the complexion of the infield carousel. It means more starts for Ahmed, obviously, and fewer for Hill. But there is a bit of ripple effect for where Owings lines up and where Cliff Pennington fits in. Initially, this is how I would have penciled in the playing time:
Allocating the playing time myself and using FanGraphs’ projections (OFF, DEF), we see a couple of things right off the bat. First, I didn’t project any other players to log time in the middle infield, but that almost surely won’t be the case as someone else will bet AB’s; someone’s going to get hurt, slump, get called up, etc. Second, no one projects as an above-average hitter. There’s growth potential for Owings and Ahmed and who the hell knows what to do with Aaron Hill? Still, using the best information we have available, this is what it looks like. Owings and Ahmed project to be good defenders, Pennington okay and Hill simply average.
When it’s all totaled up in the form of runs contributed, the squad is projected to be below average offensively and just above average defensively. The lack of offense outweighs the defensive contributions to a final tune of -9.2 runs contributed. That’s not good, but considering the cast of characters, it’s also hardly surprising.
But that cast of characters has recently changed. Let’s look at the new grouping and see how that pans out.
You’ll immediately notice the change in projected playing time. Down went Hill, up went Ahmed, but Hill will still get playing time unless he’s traded. So Chris Owing’s time gets shuffled around little bit between second and short. Cliff Pennington may get a little less time, too, in an attempt to make sure that Aaron Hill gets enough at-bats to keep the rust off, some of which will come at third base. You’re free to quibble with the innings because, after all, this is a simple exercise, not a definitive statement.
And in this remodeled version, the outcome is actually worse than before with a net run contribution of -17.6 runs. That’s about one win less than before, and if you’ve paid attention to the projections for this team, one win will hardly make a difference. And that difference largely comes from swapping out Aaron Hill’s bat for Nick Ahmed’s. True, the defensive change is beneficial, but it’s not enough, at least in the eyes of the projections, to overcome the drop in offense.
But there was a reason why we were excited about this move in the first place, and immediate production wasn’t the reason. This isn’t a scenario where the team chose to a far superior player over a blatantly inferior one. They chose the future over a player who just doesn’t have a long term fit with the organization. Sure, Nick Ahmed had a great spring, but if we bought into every player with good Spring Training stats we’d have to acknowledge John Mayberry Jr. as an MVP contender. Until proven otherwise, Nick Ahmed is an offensive detriment to the team’s attempt to produce runs.
But it’s an upside play all the way. Part of why he had good spring numbers is because he had good spring at-bats. He saw pitches, he worked counts and when he swung, he barreled up the ball. I’ve seen Ahmed personally through two Spring Trainings, as a minor leaguer and in the Arizona Fall League. I’ve always believed that he could exceed the labels placed on him by scouts, if only by a little. The above projections have him as a player putting up a wRC+ of 66. That’s 34% below league average, yet there’s reason to believe that he can grow into something better than that. Given that he should rank near the top of NL shortstops defensively, a low offensive level is acceptable. How low is the question, and with some improvement, he could easily justify his starts.
The same can be said for Chris Owings. Although he’s been a Diamondback for parts of two seasons, he still has only two-thirds of a season’s worth of at-bats. A late call-up in 2013 and an injury-riddled 2014 have limited his chances to improve and, provided he stays healthy, this can be the year in which he really racks up the plate appearances and gets a chance to grow. He’s projected for a 88 wRC+, but he’s hit better than that at a few stops in the minors and perhaps he can begin moving in that direction. By playing second base, he’ll be a less valuable defender, but probably a better defender, which should just about even out.
So while this move takes Aaron Hill’s bat out of the lineup frequently, it does improve the infield defense and provide young players with a chance to prove themselves. That’s what this is all about. The team cannot begin to evaluate pieces of the future without playing them and they appear committed to doing so. If they can move Aaron Hill in a deal that makes sense, they’ll do so. For now, it’s a bit of a revolving door in the infield, save Paul Goldschmidt. And that’s really the best strategy, even if it costs the team slightly in the win column in the short term.
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