Opportunities are funny.
They’re very similar to how the seasons in Ohio work. One day, it’s rainy and gloomy, and then all of a sudden it’s blue skies. Then you take another look outside, and it’s a snow storm. Things just come and go, but nothing seems to last forever. Opportunities are similar. At times, you think nothing is ever going to change, and you’re just going to be in the same state of living forever. Then all of a sudden, something happens, and a new door has potentially opened up for you. Do you take a leap and jump at this new found opportunity, or do you let it pass by and hope it comes back sometime soon.
This is what’s currently happening for Tyler Naquin.
Earlier this offseason, the Indians learned they’d be losing their everyday center fielder, Abraham Almonte, for at least 80 games due to a suspension handed down by the MLB for a failed PED drug test. After the suspension, who knows if Almonte will ever actually return to Cleveland. That being said, the Indians are now looking at all their internal options to replace Almonte, and Naquin seems to be the best option for the job.
Naquin, 24, was drafted by the Indians in the first round of the 2012 draft. He had initially been drafted by the Orioles in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft, but he opted to go to college at Texas A&M to get an education and some seasoning with their baseball organization. Since drafted by the Tribe, Naquin has taken his time going up through the minors. He had a solid breakout season in 2014 with Double-A Akron where he hit .313/.371/.424 with 12 doubles, five triples, four home runs, 14 stolen bases, and 30 RBI. Sadly Naquin only played in 76 games that season as he suffered from a broken wrist in the middle of the summer, and it sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
At the start of 2014, Naquin was sent back to Double-A Akron where he played in a total of 34 games before being promoted to Triple-A Columbus. During his time in Columbus, Naquin dealt with more health issues, but this time it was in the way of a concussion. While on and off the field, Naquin was able to still put up a decently solid season where he hit .263/.353/.430 with 13 doubles, six home runs, six stolen bases and 17 RBI.
When the Indians drafted Naquin, they knew that he was considered a defense first prospect. He is probably better defensively than most of the current center fielders in the MLB. He’s highly regarded for his throwing arm and how accurate and powerful it is. With the Indians currently in this youth and defense movement, Naquin would fit in quite nicely with their plans. The question really becomes if his bat will be able to keep up with major league pitching.
There are a lot of intangibles that surround Naquin’s bat, which makes it hard to gauge how he will fare in the MLB. He’s been primarily a leadoff hitter in his career, but he strikes out a bit too much for that role. In 2015, he struck out 22.5% in Triple-A in 50 at bats. At the same time, he also walked 11.5% of the time. So even though he’s a strikeout machine, he’s also very good at getting on base. That can also be seen in his career OBP which sits at 0.360. He’s an on base machine.
Along with his ability to take his bit of walks, he also has great contact quality. He does a great job of putting the bat on the ball. In 2015, he had a BABIP of .323 to match his .263 average. This shows that he put the ball in play a ton, but got a bit unlucky by hitting the ball right at somebody. This is bound to find a point of equalization at some point, and hopefully increase his on base abilities even further.
Even though Naquin is fantastic at getting on base, he doesn’t tend to steal a whole lot of bases. In 2013, Naquin mentioned how he was working on turning his speed into more of an asset than he has used in the past. He still has yet to do that though. The most bases he’s stolen in one season stands at 14 in both 2013 and 2014. His mindset on stealing seems to be similar to how Michael Brantley is. Even though he has a ton of speed, he just hasn’t quite figured out how to use it on the base paths. This is obviously still an area that Naquin is working on improving, but to do that, he’ll need to find a way to stay healthy first.
Health has been a huge issue for Naquin over the last two seasons, and it’s making analysts doubt that he can sustain playing for an entire season. People are forgetting that the injuries that Naquin has sustained are uncommon injuries and shouldn’t be indicative of futures injuries. The only injury that should be thought about going forward is the concussion that he had suffered last season. Like past center fielder Grady Sizemore, Naquin goes all out when he’s in the outfield. Whether it’s crashing into walls, diving for a ball, or whatever he can do to make an out, Naquin goes full speed ahead. This can lead to injuries, but if he’s taking care of his body, and not trying to injure himself, then Naquin will be fine going forward.
In 2015, Naquin had a wRC+ of 127. Streamer has Naquin projected at having an 87 wRC+, and ZiPS has it projected even lower at 73. Streamer had Almonte projected at 87, and ZiPS had him at 90. The fall off between Naquin and Almonte really isn’t a whole lot. When Almonte’s suspension came through, there was panic that followed through because the outfield depth is already thin with Brantley out, but I don’t think there’s an issue at all. If Naquin is given the starting job out of spring, which as of right now he’s hitting .417/.440/.667 with two doubles and two triples in ten games this spring, I think everything is going to be fine in the outfield. Right field is taken by a mix of Lonnie Chisenhall, Joey Butler, and Collin Cowgill while left field will be primarily Rajai Davis until Brantley is back. As long as the Indians can patch together some kind of outfield until Brantley comes back, I’m not worried about it at all.
The future for Naquin isn’t exactly clear. The Indians have top prospects Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier both coming up quickly through the system, both of whom have spent a ton of time in center field and have higher ceilings than Naquin. The most logical road for him going forward is to learn how to play the other two outfield positions, and most likely become a fourth outfielder for the team. With how good his defense is, he’d be the perfect guy to come in for the last couple of innings to play defense. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
If the Indians choose to not go with Naquin out of spring training, he’ll be the starting center fielder in Triple-A Columbus to start the season. The only guys that could be replacing him in center field would be a platoon of non-roster invites like Will Venable, Shane Robinson, or Robbie Grossman. None of these options seem more viable than Naquin, but he’ll need to continue swinging a hot stick if he hopes to make the club.
Regardless of if he makes the club or not, Naquin has some sort of future with the Tribe. His defense alone warrants him a chance in the MLB. With the Indians making defense a priority, there’s no doubt that he’ll be in the big league club at some point. Whether it’s sooner rather than later, well, that’ll be up to Naquin and if he can perform to the level that Terry Francona holds his expectations to.
The door is open for Naquin; the opportunity is there. He just needs to grab it by the horns, and ride with it.
Photo: David Monseur/MiLB.com