Let me end the suspense straight away: Jake Lamb is going to be Opening Day first baseman this season. With Eduardo Escobar ready for third, Nick Ahmed and Ketel Marte filling out the other two infield spots, Lamb’s best chance for consistent playing time is first.
This is not, however, a long-term play for the Diamondbacks. The reason to play Lamb at first isn’t necessarily because he is their best option (though at present he may be). The reason to play him at first is because he’s a player that once showed promise enough to be a ML regular, but after a rough 2018, Lamb needs to prove himself again.
Lamb, 28, is not a prospect anymore, and after next season he is not likely to be cheap either. His projected salary for this season is $4.7MM, and he has one year of arbitration eligibility remaining. If his 2019 resembles his 2018, he will be an easy non-tender candidate for the Dbacks. For Arizona to find a trade partner before that point, Lamb will not to come out hot in 2019.
In 2017, Lamb was an All-Star as a 26-year-old, making him look like a foundational piece moving forward. He slashed .248/.357/.487 with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs. It was a good year and an improvement on what he had been in the league up until that point (.251/.323/.448). Unfortunately, 2017 is looking more like a high-water mark than development into his prime.
He doesn’t hit for average. That ship has sailed. He strikes out too often, and outside of 2017, his approach at the plate has not been refined enough to overcome the low contact skills. He actually walks at a decent enough clip, but with a career strikeout rate at 25.4%, Lamb gets himself out far too often to be a star.
Compounding this problem (though there’s no correlation), is that Lamb is a poor defender. Last season, in a smaller sample, he graded out okay at third (5 DRS, 0.7 UZR) – but he only played in 56 games.
In his first two full seasons with the Diamondbacks, Lamb was horrible: -8 DRS, -11.8 UZR in 2016 and -13 DRS, -7.5 UZR in 2017. By moving Lamb to first base and granting him consistent at bats early in the season, Lamb can prove himself a viable defender while returning offensive numbers somewhere between his trainwreck 2018 and his career norms.
His range isn’t all of what’s tarnished his defensive metrics, but it is a large part of it – a move to first base can restore at least some of Lamb’s defensive value. At the very least, Lamb needs to prove he isn’t a complete sinkhole on that side of the ledger.
Unfortunately for Lamb, he won’t have a long leash in 2019.
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However, if over the first half of the season, Lamb can produce something close to steamer’s projection, .240/.336/.431 with 22 home runs across a full season, the Diamondbacks might be able to sell that kind of player to a contender. First base isn’t stacked around the league, but given the increased reliance on versatility, it’s not a highly-valued position either. Lamb’s ability to play third base might help his narrative – but only if you consider his brand of defense viable for third base.
Still, lefty power bats do have value, and if Lamb can get hot in the first half, teams might come calling. If they do, GM Mike Hazen would be wise to jump at the first decent offer that comes along. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Lamb is worth whatever arbitration raise will come his way prior to 2020.
Another reason to move him quickly, he’s not likely to age tremendously. He already lacks for speed/mobility, so even in the case of a bounceback, he’ll be be 29-years-old in 2020, and therefore, unlikely to fit the timeline of the Dbacks rebuilding effort aiming to yield fruit in 2021, 2022, or 2023.
In sum, Lamb is likely to see a lot of next season at first base, but only out of necessity. Best case, he goes on a tear and hits 8 home runs in April so the Diamondbacks can trade him to the Nationals, Rays, Yankees, Astros, Indians, or whatever contender loses a first baseman early on.
If Jake Lamb is the starting first baseman on the 2020 Arizona Diamondbacks, somebody make a mistake.