The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ young players who likely won’t make the roster but could impact the Tribe’s season before it ends.
Gritty, hard-nosed and a winning attitude are good attributes to have in a ball player.
Toss in above average speed, a rocket throwing arm and growing power and you have the Cleveland Indians’ Tyler Naquin. The Tribe’s first round pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft is a spring invitee to the Indians’ major league camp this spring and one of the top prospects in their organization.
While Naquin will see time with the big league roster in spring training, the Indians #5 prospect according to MLB.com will likely start the season at Double-A Akron. For some fans, this spring may be their first look at the Tribe’s potential future center fielder. Naquin explains his style of play and compares himself in a way most Indians fans can understand. His play is very much like the small town, southern, determined attitude he learned growing in Spring, Texas.
“Grady Sizemore would give his body up for just about anything,” Naquin said. “I’ll be honest, I can say the same thing. If my job is to go catch the baseball for a living, and that’s my job out there, I’m going to give it everything I got. Whether it’s going through the wall or just a routine fly ball, I have to do it my best.”
Naquin took a different route to his professional career than Sizemore, however. While Sizemore was a third round selection out of high school by the Montreal Expos, Naquin elected for three years at Texas A&M before signing with the Indians. He was Big 12 Conference Baseball Player of the Year in 2011 and attributes a lot of his quick climb through the Indians’ minor league system to his time as an Aggie.
“I couldn’t put a number on it, but I just felt like those coaches, Rob Childress and the guys under him, they all chip in a little bit,” Naquin said. “That went a long way with me and how I grew up and where I’m from. It’s kinda how those guys are. Everything is just blue collar down there. Whenever the times get tough there’s a lot of guys that seem to stand out and shine. Mentally, transitioning to pro ball, you got to play with a chip on your shoulder and I was taught that pretty well.”
His blue collar attitude and chip on his shoulder have helped him blossom early on with the Tribe. In his first full season in the organization in 2013, Naquin hit .269 with 10 home runs, 48 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron. Naquin—a midseason Carolina League All-Star—hits primarily at the top of the order as a leadoff hitter, just like Sizemore did.
One thing that sets Naquin apart from Sizemore is that he has a very good arm. So far in Naquin’s career, he has 14 outfield assists, including 11 in 2013. Outstanding outfield arms aren’t something that can necessarily be taught, but in many ways is a natural gift. For Naquin, his gift may have materialized through a sibling rivalry on his family’s farm.
“My brother had an extremely strong throwing arm playing baseball (too),” Naquin said. “I can’t remember a day me and him didn’t go outside and pick up a water logged baseball out of the ditch and just dared each other to see who could throw it the farthest. He used to hit me balls out in the horse pasture and he’d say, ‘I want you to throw it all the way to the backstop.’”
But just as important as a strong throwing arm itself is it’s accuracy. Naquin knows his accuracy is what can change a game and shut down a team’s running game.
“A strong arm is like having a good, high-caliber rifle,” Naquin said. “You can be strong, but if you don’t hit anything with it, you’re not any good with it. I like to believe I’m pretty accurate with it.”
Naquin has used his rocket arm and gritty play to be a part of a winning attitude in both seasons of his professional career. After hitting .270 in 2012 at Short Season-A Mahoning Valley, Naquin was promoted to Lake County for the Midwest League playoffs. Inserted directly into the lineup, Naquin helped the Captains reach the semifinals before losing a decisive elimination game.
He was able to play with the Captains and that core moved forward to High-A Carolina in 2013. Despite the team struggling in the standings, several players were a part of the Indians’ Winter Development Program this season from that Mudcats’ team. A group of the 2012 Captains and 2013 Mudcats have progressed through the organization and have a chance to impact the major league roster in the upcoming season or soon after. Progressing through the minor league system and building that winning attitude together is something that excites Naquin.
“Guys I’m really close to like Jake Lowery, Jordan Smith, Cody Anderson and Bryson Myles are guys I just gravitate to and have that winning attitude,” Naquin said. “It’s a blast to play with those guys and have a lot of fun.”
That winning nature and blue collar attitude helped Naquin thrive in the Arizona Fall League last fall. Naquin was the AFL Player of the Week for Oct. 29 and hit .339 and scored 22 runs while leading the Surprise Saguaros to the AFL championship. Both he and Indians farmhand, Joe Wendle played in the championship game.
“It was an awesome, once in a lifetime experience,” Naquin said. “Getting thrown in with those guys was awesome. Everybody got along real well. Afterwards, there was talk we weren’t the most talented, but we wanted to show it and grow it. We meshed well and we came together and just started winning ball games.”
Drafted originally as a speedy, outfielder, Naquin has developed some power in his professional career. In 2013, nine of his 10 home runs came in the Carolina League—a league known to be a pitcher’s league and where the ball does not fly out of the ballpark well. Naquin’s increase in power is not something the Indians have set out to develop. Instead, Naquin feels it is just a product of his maturation and development as a hitter from the collegiate game to the professional level.
“The Indians have not said one single thing to me about hitting the ball over the fence,” Naquin said. “They picked me in confidence that I’m going to get a lot of hits and score a lot of runs and I’m going to stop the running game in center field. Never has the word, ‘power’ been mentioned to myself. Just going from a college to a pro approach, the experience I’m getting allows me to do that.”
Naquin attributes his development as a hitter and progress through the minor league system to hitting coordinators, Alan Zinter, Jim Rickon and Luis Ortiz. The coaching staff creates an atmosphere for open dialogue about every hitter’s approach
“We might not agree on the same thing, every single time,” Naquin said. “I have to speak up and say, ‘that might not be comfortable,’ then we go a different route. I have a great relationship with those guys and I am so glad that none of them have said anything about power to me. They let everyone hit in this organization and they just tweak what they have to.”
Naquin will turn 23-years old on April 24 and while the Indians don’t currently have an open spot in their outfield, if an injury were to occur during the season, he could be someone who could potential serve as a replacement. With his collegiate background and age, the progression to the big league level becomes a quicker route than high school draft picks or young, foreign born players. Naquin isn’t focused on when he reaches the big leagues or any specific goal for 2014, but just winning games and making sure he stays in the big leagues when he reaches them.
“Every ballplayer has his personal goals, but I just want to win a baseball game,” Naquin said. “Whenever your team is winning, it gives everybody a chance to move up. When you see your buddies moving up the ladder in the system, that’s a good feeling. The goal isn’t to get it to the big leagues, it’s to stay in the big leagues.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer