With Holes in the Outfield, Naquin Becomes a Name to Know

The pesky rumor mill is churning once again as the Cleveland Indians attempt to address a notable hole or two in the outfield rotation for the coming 2016 season.

All three spots in the field would appear to have their question marks. Michael Brantley will not be available to start the season on time after offseason shoulder surgery, leaving a void in left. Abraham Almonte impressed, but remains unproven for extended stretches in his career and leaves doubt in center. Lonnie Chisenhall auditioned for two months in his first action as an outfielder and was surprisingly good there, but concerns about him at the spot regularly and hitting consistently at the plate leave the right field position technically up for grabs. And do not forget about a needed option off of the bench to spell the regulars at the position.

The recent rumblings have the Indians once again kicking the tires on Shane Victorino, a veteran and travelled outfielder in the twilight of his career, who could be a fit as a switch-hitting option and one-year stopgap for the Indians until the next batch of outfield reinforcements are ready.

That is where Tyler Naquin comes in.

Naquin was the club’s top draft pick in 2012, selected with the 15th pick overall out of Texas A&M University. He was previously selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft out of high school, but opted for college ball and a chance to improve his draft slot.

Now 24, the center fielder has played his way up through the Indians farm system to its top level, spending 50 games at Triple-A Columbus last season. He showed more pop there than he had done throughout his minor league career, hitting six homers, 13 doubles, and driving in 17 while hitting .263. He earned the promotion to the Clippers after hitting .348 in 34 games for the Akron RubberDucks in his third year of action at the Double-A level.

He might have been able to earn a call-up to Cleveland during the season, but a late July collision with the outfield wall at Huntington Park in Columbus left him on the disabled list with a concussion. He would return just over two weeks later, but missed the opportunity to sneak onto the Major League roster with his ill-timed injury. The club dealt outfield options David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn in his absence and instead had to opt for the likes of Almonte, Chisenhall, Tyler Holt, and Jerry Sands. He played in just seven more games after his return before he landed on the disabled list for a second time with a hip injury that concluded his season.

While it was just the fourth year of pro ball for the 6’2” left-handed hitter, it has been a relatively quick ascent through the minors after being limited to a little over a half season of work in the last several years.

He appeared in 36 games for Mahoning Valley in his debut year, hitting .270 with a .379 on-base percentage. The following season, he played in 108 games at High-A Carolina and his first 18 with Akron, hitting a combined .269 with ten homers and 48 RBI. He spent a portion of his offseason playing in the Arizona Fall League for Surprise and hit .339 there with a .400 OBP.

The injury bug bit the young outfielder in 2014 as he was limited to 76 games for Akron after he was hit by a pitch on June 27th and broke his hand. He had played well for the club as a whole, hitting .313 with four homers, 12 doubles, five triples, and 30 RBI in the half-season and it appeared as though a late season move to Columbus would not have been out of the question, but the injury required surgery that ended his year. After missing time, he followed his shortened season with a trip to the Dominican Winter League. For Los Gigantes del Cibao, he appeared in a dozen games and hit just .220.

As a former top draft pick, the expectations had been high on Naquin but have tapered some. While he has hit for a respectable average and finds his way on base, he has not racked up large sums of stolen bases despite being recognized as having good speed. In his first full year, he picked off 15, before taking 14 in 2014 and 13 last season, but his reduced game count in the last two years may have helped contain those numbers some. He has some extra base potential and saw a strong increase in his doubles production last year, but has not forecasted as having much power overall. His injury history has been slim, much more a result of bad luck and aggressive play than anything else.

Defensively, he has a career .989 fielding percentage. He has been used almost exclusively as a center fielder, playing just one game in the 2013 Arizona Fall League and one game in 2014 for Akron in right field. His arm is thought to be strong enough to play in either of the two outfield spots.

While there may be a lot of uncertainty in the current Indians outfield mix, Naquin has played well enough to merit some consideration for a spot in spring camp. Helping his cause, the fifth-best prospect in the Indians system according to MLB.com, was added to Cleveland’s 40-man roster, protecting the club from losing him in the Rule 5 draft next week. The current list of candidates internally for the Tribe in the outfield is slim – in addition to Almonte, Chisenhall, and Sands, the club can take a look at recently signed Shane Robinson, brief member of the Clippers’ last season, Michael Choice, and another of Naquin’s Triple-A teammates, James Ramsey, who was also added to the 40-man within the last two weeks. They also acquired outfielder Collin Cowgill from the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday night.

Naquin will be invited back to Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training with the parent club for a second straight year.

Naquin may not be a name well known to fans at the start of the 2016 campaign, but as injuries mount over the course of the season, he may become one as one of the first call-ups from Columbus to reinforce the Indians 25-man roster. A strong start to the spring and even his minor league season could only help but to speed up the process for the speedy outfielder.

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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