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Shortstop: One of few position battles left for Arizona Diamondbacks

(AP photos)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Three players. One position.

For manager Torey Lovullo it’s a good problem to have. It creates competition, which is exactly what he and the Arizona Diamondbacks have at the shortstop position here in spring training.

Nick Ahmed, Ketel Marte and Chris Owings are all vying for the job. All manned the position in 2017.

“We have some very capable guys that are going to go out there and compete,” Lovullo said. “Nobody is the lead-dog right now. It’s all going to be a blank canvas in my eyes and they’re going to go out and hopefully somebody will emerge from that group and be the starting shortstop.”

A pair of right-hand injuries limited Ahmed to 53 games last season, including 41 starts at shortstop.

“It was a very, very trying year for Nick,” Lovullo said.

Always good with the glove — Baseball America rated Ahmed as the National League’s second-best defensive shortstop behind the Giants’ Brandon Crawford — Ahmed was having a solid year with the bat, hitting a career-high .251 before getting hurt.

He didn’t play after June 27 meaning he missed out on the D-backs’ playoff run, their first in six years.

“It’s something I definitely want to be a part of, but hopefully I’ll play for plenty more years and get there a bunch more times,” he said.

For now, Ahmed, 27, is focused solely on this season, specifically this spring, trying to convince the D-backs it should be him who breaks camp as the starting shortstop.

“You can’t control what anybody else is doing or what the coaches or media think. You just have to control your own game and your own emotions and your own growth and do what you can to get a little bit better every day,” he said. “I trust that that is going to take care of itself when the time is right.”

Owings, too, is coming off an injury-shortened season.

Hit by a pitch in late July, Owings suffered a fractured right middle finger. The injury required surgery and then a follow-up procedure was performed in the offseason.

Owings, 26, has since been cleared for all baseball activity; though the D-backs are easing him back in. He’ll be the designated hitter in Friday’s Cactus League opener.

It was Owings who started Opening Day last season. He made 51 total starts at shortstop.

This season, at least right now, the D-backs view Owings as a jack-of-all-trades.

“He’s going to walk all over the diamond and impact the game from a different angle at different times throughout the course of the season. So, it’s going to be a little bit of third, a little bit of short, a little bit of second, a little bit of corner outfield,” Lovullo said.

Ultimately, Owings may land at second base, where the D-backs now have an opening after this week’s trade of Brandon Drury to the New York Yankees.

“We talked the other day,” Owings said, referring to Lovullo. “I envision the same kind of role as last year; kind of bouncing around, bringing all my gloves to the dugout.”

With the injuries to Ahmed and Owings, it was Marte, who in the words of Lovullo, saved the D-backs a year ago.

After his recall from Triple-A Reno, Marte hit .260 with 11 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 18 RBI in 73 games, 57 of which he started at shortstop. Plus another four starts in the postseason, where he batted .412 (7-for-17) with two triples, one home run and two RBI.

“We’re hoping that it picks up right where it left off. He’s one of those players that played such meaningful innings last year that he grows and learns and projects a little bit better,” Lovullo said. “We want Ketel to get on edge, perform with his pants on fire like he did last year because he’s a very special player.”

Marte, 24, was acquired as part of the trade with the Seattle Mariners that landed the D-backs starting pitcher Taijuan Walker for second baseman Jean Segura last offseason.

Like Owings, Marte does have experience playing second base — albeit limited; three career starts, all in 2015 — which gives the D-backs some roster flexibility. If given the choice, however, Marte prefers fielding the left side of the diamond.

“I can play shortstop better. But, I’m Dominican, Latin, I can play anywhere,” he said, smiling. “If I had to catch, I can catch, too. If I had to pitch, I can pitch, too. Anywhere. I just want to be on the team because I know I can help my team to get this championship.”

Between the three, Ahmed has shown to be the better glove, Owings the better bat and Marte would appear to be a good mix of the two at this stage of his young career.

It’s up to Lovullo, and the D-backs front office, to decide which one of the three, or maybe even a combination, works best in 2018.

“Defensively, we’re looking for leadership. Defensively, we’re looking for our shortstop to cover ground and make plays — without a fear,” he said.

“Offensively, we’re going to pay attention to how the ball is coming off the bat, looking at swing planes, balanced approaches, engaged at-bats, lengthy at-bats, smart at-bats. Those guys have to understand what each at-bat is asking them to do and we’re going to evaluate a little bit based on what they’re doing to execute knowing what that at-bat is asking for.”

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