PHOENIX – The majority of Arizona Diamondbacks fans first heard Nick Ahmed’s name in 2013, when he was included in the trade which sent All-Star outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson to the Atlanta Braves.
In 2014, Ahmed had gained more notoriety within the D-backs system, thanks in part to his top-flight defense, though he was buried in the club’s depth chart behind Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius and Cliff Pennington. And after his major league debut and subsequent 40-day stay with the D-backs, he had proven himself as an elite defender, but did little to set himself apart from a three-man prospect group at shortstop.
With Gregorius gone and Owings seeing an increasing amount of innings at second base, Ahmed hit .328 with a .781 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in Cactus League play this spring. And on Friday, D-backs manager Chip Hale named the 25-year-old his Opening Day starting shortstop.
“It was a quick conversation,” Ahmed said of his meeting with Hale. “He just called me in the office and said I was going to be the starting shortstop, that I did a good job this spring and earned that role.”
Hale said he considered the team’s middle infield positions an open competition coming into the spring. Incumbent second baseman Aaron Hill seemed pitted against last year’s Opening Day shortstop, Owings, who would have to battle Ahmed to retain his spot.
“Going into spring, they were all told what the situation was and that we were going to give them as much playing time as we could to show us what they could do,” Hale said.
The manager had never seen Ahmed live before joining the D-backs, but knew the basics of the scouting report entering spring.
“I had never seen Nick play in person,” he said. “And obviously the defense was as impressive as I was told and the offense was a lot better than I was told it was going to be.”
Needing to beat out tough competition and emerging from tapered expectations is nothing new for Ahmed, a self-described underdog. Recruited mostly as a pitcher out of high school, the East Longmeadow, Mass. native arrived at UConn his freshman year itching for time at shortstop. But future first-round pick and Chicago Cubs infielder Mike Olt sat between him and playing time at his natural position.
“When he came in, I was the shortstop,” Olt recalled Friday at Chase Field before opposing Ahmed in an exhibition game. “It’s actually kind of funny to think about that now. He was at third when I played short and, well, he was terrible at third.
“We joke around about that, but obviously he just wasn’t comfortable over there. And I never really saw him play short, and then I got hurt and he came in and played short and it was like — like nothing I’ve ever really seen before. He’s definitely one of the best defensive shortstops I’ve ever seen.”
And after Olt, the star of that 2009 Huskies team, was won over to Ahmed’s abilities, their roles swapped.
“When I came back, it was easy for me to say, ‘Hey, I want to play third. Have Nick play shortstop,'” he explained.
On Friday, Olt played third base for the Cubs while Ahmed started at shortstop for the D-backs.
Ahmed, who is two years younger than Olt, was drafted one year and one round after his college teammate as a second-round selection of the Braves in 2011.
A year later, while at Single-A Lynchburg, he was named the Carolina League’s best defensive shortstop by Baseball America. D-backs pitcher Robbie Ray has a vague memory of Ahmed and his glove from his days with Single-A Potomac, a Washington Nationals affiliate.
“I remember there being a kid over there (at shortstop) for the Braves who was, yeah, pretty good,” he said.
“You know, I think he might have hit a bopper off of me, too. I’m not sure — 2012 was a bad year for me, so I’ve kind of tried to forget about it.”
Ahmed was also named the league’s fastest base runner by Baseball America in 2012, swiping 40 bases in 130 games for Lynchburg. By the end of the season, the publication slated him as the 11th best prospect in the Braves organization.
At the plate, Ahmed’s fortunes were different in his first few seasons as a pro. He hit .262, .269 and .236 in Rookie ball, Single-A and Double-A, respectively, never recording an on-base percentage above .346 and striking out over 100 times in 2012.
In 104 games for Triple-A Reno last year, however, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound shortstop broke out. He hit .312 with a .798 OPS and 34 extra-base hits. Though that didn’t translate to his 25 games in the majors last season, where hit .200 in 70 at-bats, Ahmed was set on proving his offensive dexterity to the D-backs organization when he arrived at Salt River Fields two months ago.
“I heard (Derek) Jeter say something cool last year — he said he just came to spring training to try to win a job,” Ahmed said. “So I just tried to come to spring and show the coaches and the team I’m ready to play and help the team win.”
“I guess I’ve done that, so they decided to give me a job.”
That attitude sounds familiar to Olt from the duo’s days in Storrs, Conn.
“I just remember him being that guy, that whole offseason and going into the season, he worked extremely hard trying to be a shortstop,” the Cubs infielder recalled. “Seeing his work ethic — you remember that. If that was his goal in life — to be a starting shortstop — he was going to do whatever he could to do that.
“It’s like if you ever doubt Nick on something, he’s going to make sure he works hard enough to prove you wrong.”
Friday, just one spring after being the fourth shortstop in the D-backs’ organizational depth chart, Ahmed had the privilege of calling his wife, Amanda, to announce himself as an Opening Day starter for the team. And on Monday, with his parents in the stands, he’ll hear his own name over the Chase Field loudspeaker during Opening Day introductions.
“To start Opening Day, I think that’s a new set of emotions — the excitement of a new season built on the excitement of being a guy in a starting lineup on Opening Day,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”