D-backs facing log jam on corners as Jake Lamb works way back

Jun 20, 2019, 11:19 AM
FILE - In this July 20, 2018, file photo, Arizona Diamondback Jake Lamb plays third base against th...
FILE - In this July 20, 2018, file photo, Arizona Diamondback Jake Lamb plays third base against the Colorado Rockies during a baseball game in Phoenix. The Diamondbacks plan to move Lamb from third base to first. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb, File)
(AP Photo/Darryl Webb, File)

Coaches and general managers would say it’s a good problem to have.

With Christian Walker slugging well and Eduardo Escobar playing like the guy the Diamondbacks traded for – and signed – to a $21 million extension prior to the season, the D-backs appeared to set on the two corners of the infield.

But a new face is about to enter the picture. It’s not a totally new one; he’s just hardly had a chance to show that face in nearly a year now.

It’s Jake Lamb, who is coming back from a quad strain sustained early in the season.

Lamb was a star two years ago. In 2017, he made his first All-Star team after hitting .248/.357/.487 with 30 home runs and an OPS+ of 112. Lamb was a RBI machine, driving in 196 between the two seasons of 2016 and 2017. He hit 59 home runs in that time span.

He was an offensive powerhouse until the 2018 season came. The first of many injuries was a shoulder in early April, which kept him out until mid-May. Lamb’s splits before and after the injury were good, but his numbers roller coastered until he re-aggravated the shoulder, and had to miss the rest of the season due to surgery.

Perhaps Lamb’s 2018, in which he finished with a .222/.307/.655 slash line, could be blamed on the fact that he was never quite 100 percent healthy. Or that after two years of good production at a young age, Lamb hit a bit of expected regression.

2019 was supposed to be the year that Lamb proved that was the case and rebounded, but the quad strain has slowed him down.

Walker has made the D-backs not miss Lamb as much as they thought they would. The 28-year-old is hitting .256/.330/.476 with 12 home runs and a 106 OPS+ so far this season. In the best chance he’s ever gotten in his MLB career, which consisted of just 61 games total, Walker has taken advantage and impressed.

When the D-backs traded for infielder Eduardo Escobar, it was to make up for Lamb’s absence at third base as the team was likely to make the playoffs. It was a classic buyers’ move. When they re-signed him after the season, it created some overlap. Paul Goldschmidt was still on the team and occupying first base; Lamb figured to be playing third.

But then Goldschmidt was traded to the Cardinals, and it moved Lamb across the diamond, opening up third for Escobar.

Walker isn’t the only player taking advantage. Escobar is hitting .285/.344/.553 with 17 home runs and a 128 OPS+.

With Escobar playing at the All-Star level the D-backs expected him to and the surprise production from Walker, finding at-bats for Lamb might be hard.

But that’s not the case according to D-backs manager Torey Lovullo.

“We want him here,” he said. “I expressed to Jake [Lamb] is that his spot is waiting for him.

That sounds like Lovullo wants to throw Lamb into the fire right away. They’re going to treat Lamb like the player he was in 2017. And they’ll expect the same production, too.

Lovullo added that Lamb will be playing first and third base when he arrives to the majors, creating lineup complexity.

Essentially, the D-backs will have two different alignments. One where Lamb plays third, Escobar moves to second and Marte plays center. Escobar is certainly capable of playing in the middle infield; Lovullo suggested that earlier in the season. This lineup would allow Lamb’s bat, which showed signs of returning back to its 2017 self in just five games early this season, to be featured along with Walker’s.

If Lamb plays first, that moves Escobar back to third base, sits Walker, and allows Marte or one of Wilmer Flores (who is also working back from injury) or Ildemaro Vargas to play second. All options aren’t bad ones for the D-backs; Vargas is hitting .261 this season and Flores .281 before the injury.

But is it unfair to kick out Walker’s legs at first after the season he’s having?

He hasn’t been incredibly consistent. After a strong April and March, Walker cooled off in May. It looked as if the strong start could have been just a fluke, considering it was Walker’s first good year ever.

But Walker has rebounded a bit in June, with 14 hits in 17 games and two home runs.

Walker’s also started to identify as a power hitter, a label that brings averages down. Adjusting for that is important when comparing Walker to Lamb.

Trading one of the two would be a better solution for both involved, but even that has its dicey components. Teams might be skeptical of Walker, a 28-year-old whose only good season was the one he’s having now. And Lamb was someone the D-backs seem keen on keeping based on recent quotes and his success in prior seasons.

Lovullo was vague about how the two will share innings. Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

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