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Anyone who saw more than a few Diamondbacks games in the mid-2010s knows that Nick Ahmed diving for baseballs has been a fixture of the franchise for nearly a decade. Typically, in a matter of milliseconds, he gets up and delivers a strike to first base.
But in 2020, during the second iteration of spring camp prior to a 60-game season, one particular dive didn’t feel right.
“We had that new turf installed over at Chase Field, and I didn’t slide,” Ahmed said. “When you dive, you normally land and then slide a little bit. I dove and just stuck, and I felt my shoulder jam up really bad.”
In retrospect, Ahmed now views that moment as the first chapter in a long story of right shoulder problems that have disrupted three straight seasons. But now, after undergoing shoulder surgery in mid-2022, he feels like himself again.
“I’m doing all baseball activities right now: hitting, throwing, running, fielding. At this point in the offseason, still with a month left till spring training actually starts, I feel like I’m in a really good spot.
“Just with all this time, just educationally to learn how to best take care of my shoulder and the rest of my body, I feel like I’m gonna come back even stronger than it was before.”
It’s been a long road for the D-backs shortstop. Despite the shoulder injury, Ahmed was fixated on getting back on the field in 2020 after sitting out four straight months due to the pandemic. He played, but the shoulder never felt right.
After an offseason of tireless rehab, he felt good about it heading into 2021. But with a few more dives, the same issues flared up again. When his throwing felt better, his hitting felt worse. When his hitting felt normal, he struggled to throw. Remarkably, he still managed to play 129 games in 2021, but it was ultimately Ahmed’s worst season — both offensively and defensively — since 2016.
Determined to avoid surgery, Ahmed tried a variety of treatments in spring training of 2022, including cortisone injections, platelet-rich plasma injections and stem cell therapy. Eventually, it got to the point where he was struggling to perform day-to-day tasks like washing his hair and putting his seat belt on. It was no longer worth pushing through the pain, and Ahmed underwent surgery in mid-June. He says he is in a good place now, but this offseason has not been without its challenges.
“We tried some baseball activity earlier in the offseason,” he said, “and I could’ve push through it if I needed to. But we decided to take it a little bit slower, and it slowed the progression down. But everything ticked back up great in November and December when I ramped it back up again for the second time.”
Ahmed appears to be on track for a healthy 2023 season — his first since 2019, when he won a Gold Glove and hit .254/.316/.437 with 19 homers, 82 RBI and a 93 OPS+. That was four years ago, though, and Ahmed knows he has a lot to prove this spring.
“There’s never anything taken for granted on my end,” he said. “I’m ready to get back to being on the field and being an everyday shortstop like I have been in the past. But I have to go out and show that and earn that.”
On paper, Ahmed has the inside track to the everyday shortstop role. In his absence, 22-year-old rookie Geraldo Perdomo got the majority of the reps at shortstop last year. Perdomo’s defense improved throughout the season, but he struggled offensively all year, hitting just .195/.285/.262. Among MLB players with 500 or more plate appearances, Perdomo had the lowest OPS (.547) in baseball in 2022.
Other shortstop options in the organization include Diego Castillo, who was recently acquired via trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and 23-year-old prospect Blaze Alexander, who has long been known as a slick defender at short.
Ahmed embracing leadership role
In addition to his aspirations to play every day, Ahmed — the Diamondbacks’ longest tenured player — has taken it upon himself to lend a hand to some of the team’s young players.
“Coming up on my 10th year with the team, it’s something I’ve tried to embrace the last several years,” Ahmed said. “Just being a leader, being a mentor and being somebody that I can just share and take the young guys under my wing and just say, ‘Hey, man, I’ve been through this before. I know what you’re going through. Here’s what’s helped me.'”
When Kyle Lewis was acquired by the D-backs via trade in November, Ahmed was one of the first to reach out and welcome him to the club. Over the past few weeks, Ahmed and Lewis have spent time together at Salt River Fields — working out, hitting in the cage and sharing rehab stories in the clubhouse.
During the Arizona Fall League, Ahmed also took time to work with D-backs top shortstop prospect Jordan Lawlar on defense. Lawlar, 20, is widely viewed as Ahmed’s successor at shortstop for the D-backs.
“He’s a good kid,” Ahmed said. “I really liked him a lot. He’s hungry. He wants to get better. Obviously he’s super talented, but he’s humble. He wants to get better and learn.”
Lawlar’s offensive progression has been remarkably smooth in the minors. In his first full pro season in 2022, Lawlar worked his way up from the Arizona Complex League all the way to Double A, slashing a sparkling .303/.401/.509 along the way. Lawlar capped off his season with a brief stint in the Arizona Fall League, hitting a similarly impressive .278/.469/.528 before succumbing to a fractured scapula after 11 games.
Moving forward, prospect evaluators have more questions about Lawlar’s defense than his offense. In 87 games at shortstop in 2022, Lawlar made 29 errors. His range seems to be less of an issue than his arm, which at times looked weak and inaccurate in the fall league. Lawlar acknowledged that his throwing is an area for improvement moving forward.
“He shared with me and some of the coaches that his throwing was kind of more of the concern than the actual catching and fielding component,” Ahmed said. “But the arm strength is there, man. So it was more of just put your feet in the right spot and learn how to use the athleticism that you do have, and stop thinking so much.
“Just to kind of get him to relax and not put so much pressure on himself. I think that can come being a young kid, being a high draft pick and all that.”
Lawlar should be fully healthy in 2023, as he looks to take the next step toward becoming the D-backs’ shortstop. Ahmed is a big believer.
“He’s going to take some big steps forward,” Ahmed said. “He’s got the athletic ability, obviously, to do it. And he hasn’t had a lot of time. He was drafted out of high school, got hurt. He hasn’t played a whole lot of professional baseball yet. I think he just needs some time and some reps, and he’s going to be in a really good spot.”
As for Ahmed, the 32-year-old is entering the final year of a four-year contract extension that he signed prior to the 2020 season. It’s a big year for him, as he looks to prove that he is still an everyday-caliber shortstop despite his recent injuries. For now, he is focused on the present.
“I’ve been blessed to play this game for a long time,” he said, “and would love to continue doing that. But just [have to] get in the moment. Just take care of the task at hand each and every day, and that’ll all take care of itself.”
Top photo: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic
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