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When the Diamondbacks traded franchise cornerstone Justin Upton prior to the 2013 season, it was not without controversy.
After posting a .280/.350/.430 slash line in 2012, Upton’s value was not at its highest. Even so, according to a report from Ken Rosenthal, the Diamondbacks seemed to be set on moving him because his style of play did not fit what the team was looking for.
After Upton reportedly exercised his no-trade clause to block a trade to the Seattle Mariners, the Diamondbacks continued to engage in trade talks.
Eventually, they agreed to deal Upton to the Atlanta Braves along with third baseman Chris Johnson in exchange for utility man Martín Prado, pitcher Randall Delgado and a trio of prospects, including shortstop Nick Ahmed, infielder Brandon Drury and pitcher Zeke Spruill.
At the time, Prado was the headliner of the deal. However, after receiving down-ballot MVP votes in 2010 and 2012 with the Braves, he hit only .278/.326/.398 in 1,100 career plate appearances with the Diamondbacks before being flipped to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline in 2014.
When all was said and done, it was not Prado — nor Spruill, Drury or Delgado — who proved to be the most valuable asset in the trade for the Diamondbacks. It was, by a wide margin, slick-fielding shortstop Nick Ahmed.
Looking back on Nick Ahmed’s Diamondbacks career
Ranked by Baseball America as the Braves’ No. 11 prospect prior to the Upton trade in 2013, Ahmed was seen as a very good defensive shortstop with some uncertainty about his bat.
The D-backs sent him out to Double-A Mobile in 2013. He struggled mightily, slashing only .236/.288/.324 in 538 plate appearances. Nonetheless, the team brought him up to Triple-A Reno the following year, and he found his way to the majors in June of 2014. His dazzling defense made an instant impression.
Ultimately, prior to being designated for assignment on Thursday, Ahmed accumulated a franchise-best 80 defensive runs saved in his 10-year Diamondbacks career. (Gerardo Parra ranks second in D-backs history with 66 DRS.)
From 2016 to 2019, Ahmed led all major league shortstops with 76 outs above average and ranked second with 65 DRS. In DRS, he trailed only the Los Angeles Angels’ Andrelton Simmons, who logged roughly 800 more innings at the position in that span.
Ahmed was never known for his bat, but his defense was so good in his prime years that he was still an above-average starting shortstop despite subpar offense.
In 2018, Ahmed had his first true breakout season. In 153 games, he hit .234/.290/.411 and set career highs with 16 homers and 70 RBI. His 85 wRC+ still fell below the league average (100), but it was the closest Ahmed had gotten up to that point.
He also posted 28 DRS and 35 OAA, both of which led the league by a wide margin. In the process, he won his first NL Gold Glove Award.
According to Baseball-Reference, Ahmed was worth 4.1 wins above replacement (bWAR) in 2018. Only 38 position players around the league had more that year.
If that does not sound impressive, this might: Ahmed would have been the most valuable position player on 10 different teams in 2018. (He would have been the most valuable position player on the D-backs had it not been for some guy named Paul Goldschmidt.)
In 2019, Ahmed had an even better year, slashing .254/.316/.437 with 19 homers, 82 RBI and another Gold Glove. In the process, he posted a career-high 4.2 bWAR. Upton exceeded that bWAR total only once after being traded from the D-backs — and he did so with the Detroit Tigers, not the Braves.
Following Ahmed’s career year in 2019, the Diamondbacks signed him to a four-year, $32.5 million extension prior to the 2020 season. He was already under team control for 2020; the deal tacked on three additional years from 2021-23.
Suffice it to say those years did not go as Ahmed or the Diamondbacks hoped. In 737 plate appearances since the start of the 2021 season, the D-backs shortstop hit just .219/.272/.336. His defensive metrics remained solid, but not elite as in years prior.
Some of Ahmed’s decline could be explained by his age; he is 33 now. However, his career was also impacted significantly by a right shoulder injury suffered while diving for a ball on newly installed Chase Field turf prior to the start of the 2020 season.
Ahmed played through the injury for multiple years, but surgery was eventually deemed necessary in mid-2022.
Entering the 2023 season, he felt healthy again and expected to be the team’s everyday shortstop. Due to the emergence of Geraldo Perdomo and his own struggles offensively, however, Ahmed did not get that opportunity.
In 210 plate appearances this year, Ahmed slashed just .212/.257/.303, including a .155/.197/.207 line against lefties. His range at shortstop remained excellent, but his arm strength was poor. Among 50 major league shortstops with 75 or more throws this year, Ahmed’s arm strength ranks last.
Undoubtedly, Ahmed’s shoulder injury played a role in that. Still, that does not mean he would have done anything differently given the opportunity.
“[I] don’t regret diving for that ball in summer camp,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Just how I’ve always played the game and how I’ll always continue to play the game.”
As the D-backs continue to compete in a contentious NL wild card race, they decided to replace Ahmed with top shortstop prospect Jordan Lawlar, a player that Ahmed spent time mentoring in the offseason.
With the move, Ahmed became the third Diamondbacks player of four or more years to be designated for assignment this season, joining starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner and catcher Carson Kelly.
While Ahmed’s production was clearly diminished by his shoulder issues, he still produced 12.2 bWAR in his Diamondbacks career.
Given how he was perceived when the D-backs acquired him, he exceeded expectations. At his peak, he was a top-10 shortstop in baseball.
Looking back on other players in Upton trade
When the Diamondbacks made the Upton trade, they initially received only one year of club control of Prado. That changed quickly when they agreed to terms on a four-year, $40 million extension just a week after acquiring him. However, as mentioned earlier, Prado did not stick around for long.
After 1 1/2 years of unspectacular production in Arizona, the D-backs traded Prado to the New York Yankees for catching prospect Peter O’Brien.
O’Brien had monstrous raw power, but he struggled to hit in the majors and was designated for assignment roughly two years after being acquired.
Aside from Prado, the only player with big-league experience acquired in the Upton trade was 22-year-old right-hander Randall Delgado.
Delgado pitched parts of six seasons with the D-backs from 2013-18, but he never reached the ceiling that the D-backs envisioned. He pitched primarily as a reliever, logging an unspectacular 4.14 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. He was worth 1.7 bWAR during his D-backs tenure.
Since departing the D-backs as a minor league free agent in 2018, Delgado has not made it back to the majors. This year, at age 33, he has pitched in both independent ball and the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Infielder Brandon Drury was a 21-year-old in A-ball at the time of the trade. Now 31, he has proven to be a valuable major leaguer with decent pop, but he has always been limited by subpar defense and a below-average walk rate.
In parts of nine years in the majors, Drury has accumulated 3.4 bWAR in his career, 1.3 of which came with the D-backs.
The D-backs ultimately traded Drury to the Yankees in February of 2018 as part of a three-team deal that brought outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona. Souza suffered a major knee injury prior to the start of the 2019 season and ultimately played less than half a season for the D-backs, struggling when he did.
The final piece of the puzzle for the D-backs was pitcher Zeke Spruill. He reached the majors in 2013 at age 23, but he tossed only 34 major league innings.
Ultimately, it would be difficult to chalk up the Upton trade as a win for the D-backs. In two years with the Braves, Upton slashed .267/.348/.478 from 2013-14, averaging 28 homers and 86 RBI per year with a total of 5.9 bWAR. Chris Johnson, who was also part of the deal for Atlanta, added an additional 2.1 bWAR in 2 1/2 seasons with the Braves.
With Upton set to reach free agency after the 2015 season, the Braves flipped him to the San Diego Padres in December of 2014, netting left-handed pitching prospect Max Fried, among others, in the deal. Fried is now one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, having finished second in NL Cy Young voting last year.
Combine Johnson and Upton’s production in Atlanta and the massive haul the Braves got when they dealt Upton, and, yes, this trade does not look great for the D-backs.
Nonetheless, Ahmed technically outproduced Upton and Johnson in bWAR by himself while on his rookie contract. He will go down as one of the best defenders, if not the best, in Diamondbacks history.
For D-backs manager Torey Lovullo, it will be more than just Ahmed’s slick defense that will be missed.
“He’s just a good human being,” Lovullo said, “who was engaged every single day when he came to the ballpark to do everything he could to help his team win a baseball game. I had a relationship with him for seven years where we got to know one another. I could almost look at him and tell what he was thinking, and I’m sure it was the same for him. He left everything he could possibly leave out there on this field.
“My thought was to make him my first embrace when we clinch a playoff spot this year because of everything that he’s been through, that we’ve been through, this organization has been through. But we’ll put that on pause. It’s not going to happen … Baseball’s tough sometimes.”
Top photo: Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports