PHOENIX — Told that a reporter in from Atlanta was here to interview him, Nick Ahmed looked up for a second, said OK, but didn’t rush to finish a card game the Braves shortstop prospect was playing with a Phoenix Desert Dogs teammate.
He’s young (22), but cool. Can’t seem too enthusiastically eager-to-please, you know?
This was last Saturday morning in Phoenix, heading into the fifth and final week of an Arizona Fall League season in which Ahmed has drawn attention from plenty of major league scouts, who often account for about 10 percent of the 200 or so folks in the seats for a 12:35 p.m. AFL game.
He had two triples in his first two at-bats Wednesday against Surprise and carried a .288 average, .361 on-base percentage and seven extra-base hits (one homer) in 73 at-bats before Thursday’s season finale. Ahmed had 10 RBIs and five stolen bases in 19 games, and 11 strikeouts gave him one of the lowest K rates in the league.
“He’s come out here and opened some eyes, with this [Desert Dogs] staff as well as the other staffs throughout the league,” said Phoenix manager Aaron Holbert, also the Braves’ manager at Double-A Mississippi, Ahmed’s likely next stop. “He’s played an amazing shortstop — definitely one of the top shortstops in this fall league. And he started off just on fire swinging the bat.”
Braves general manager Frank Wren said, “If we didn’t have [shortstop Andrelton] Simmons I think people would be raving about Nick Ahmed, because he’s that good.”
Ahmed didn’t seem surprised by how well he fared against some of baseball’s top prospects in the fall league, despite having no experience above high Class-A. A second-round draft pick in 2010 out of the University of Connecticut, Ahmed says he did what he’s always done.
“I know I can play and I know that once I get the opportunity to be out there, people are going to like how I play,” he said, and looks you in the eye as he says it. “I mean, I go out there and I play hard and try to improve every single day, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve gotten a lot better out here, I’ve learned a lot about myself and things have gone pretty well so far.”
In 130 games at high-A Lynchburg in 2012, Ahmed hit .269 with 46 extra-base hits (four triples, six homers), 84 runs and 40 stolen bases in 50 attempts. Not only can the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Massachusetts native run well, he works hard on his base-stealing technique and recognizing pitchers’ tendencies.
The AFL season began Oct. 9 and Ahmed went 14-for-40 (.350) in October despite not playing every day. The way the fall league is set up, six AFL teams are each assigned prospects from a handful of major league organizations, which draft “priority” slots.
Because the priority shortstop slot for the Desert Dogs went to Tampa Bay, Rays prospect Hak-Ju Lee got a lot of starts at the position (he hit .256 with a .623 OPS before Thursday). But Holbert worked to get Ahmed in games, including a couple as a designated hitter and plenty of starts at shortstop.
“He’s tapered off a little bit, but continues to do enough to stay sane,” Holbert said after Ahmed’s 3-for-23 stretch to begin November. “If we had some more time here I’m quite sure he could easily finish over the .300 mark.”
Ahmed, two semesters shy a degree from Connecticut, was teammates there with Rangers third-base prospect Mike Olt, who played in the AFL in 2011 and told his pal what to expect. It went as Olt said.
“It’s been awesome,” said Ahmed, who has a compact swing that generates pretty good power and a lot of line drives. “You get to play with the best guys in all of minor league baseball, and some who have big league time….
“I wasn’t sure how I would stack up. I knew I can play, but now coming here I know that as long as I continue to improve I can play with anyone.”
Ahmed snapped out of that funk with a pair of two-hit outings in a three-game stretch this week, putting the finishing touches on a performance that should be followed by his inclusion in Braves top-10 prospects lists. He wasn’t ranked last winter, when he had only a half-season of rookie ball under his belt and two shortstops ahead of him, Tyler Pastornicky and phenom Simmons.
Pastornicky was the Braves’ opening-day starter but struggled and was soon replaced by the Simmons, who excelled in all facets at the major league level. Simmons now seems entrenched.
Where does that leave Ahmed, who’s only six months younger than Simmons? The Braves have discussed moving Ahmed to second base, which might seem almost a waste of his strong arm and range. But if he’s going to play in Atlanta, he’ll presumably need another position as long as Simmons stays healthy.
“He has good range to both sides, to his glove side as well as his backhand,” Holbert said of Ahmed. “And he knows his runners, does a good job setting his feet and has a very powerful arm and shows it off when needed. Accurate arm as well.”
Ahmed knows there is another possibility: His trade value has grown.
“Obviously that’s the goal, to get up [to the majors] as soon as possible,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s a little bit out of your hands. I know that if I continue to improve and continue to play well, that will kind of put pressure on them to make me move up, and hopefully there’s an opportunity to help them succeed at the big-league level, show what I can do.
“Whether it’s play shortstop, whether it’s play second base – I’m not sure what their plans are for me. But hopefully I’ll get up there soon, whether it’s with the Braves or someone else.”
He’ll do whatever the Braves need, but admits the preference is shortstop.
“That’s the position I’d like to stay at,” he said. “I feel like I’m a pretty good shortstop and continue to improve, and go out there and make all the plays. And I feel like I would be almost selling myself short if I moved to a new position.”