Naquin MIA as Indians Facing Lefty-Heavy Opposition Early in 2016

Did you wonder who that guy was that took over in center field in the bottom of the seventh in the Indians’ 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night?

After having an incredible spring training and winning a spot in center field on the Cleveland roster to start the season, rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin has been largely missing in action through the team’s first six games of the season.

While manager Terry Francona and the Indians can rationalize keeping the former first round pick (15th overall in the 2012 draft) on the bench with the heavy dose of left-handers that the club has faced in the early going this year, one has to wonder how beneficial keeping Naquin on the roster will be to keeping his bat fresh. That argument might be a much stronger one if the Columbus Clippers had been getting in regular games to start their season but, like the Indians, they have been heavily impacted by the weather after the cancellations of each of their first three games, in addition to their game Monday against Louisville.

Naquin, who turns 25 on the 24th of April, has appeared in four games in 2016 with one start in the team’s second game against the Boston Red Sox, one that was started by right-handed pitcher Clay Buchholz. The rest of the schedule has been dominated by left-handers, as Boston threw David Price in the opener, Chicago used two lefties (John Danks and Chris Sale) and was slated to throw a third (Jose Quintana) in Sunday’s rainout, and the Rays used both Matt Moore and Drew Smyly in the first two games of their series against the Tribe in Tampa, leaving Naquin to make three guest appearances as a defensive replacement late in ball games.

The young left-handed hitting outfielder may finally see the starting lineup again on Thursday afternoon when the Indians and Rays conclude their three-game set from Tropicana Field as Tampa will throw right-handed ace Chris Archer on the mound.

Naquin has disappeared to the bench and has been under-utilized with the strong play from switch-hitter Jose Ramirez, who has been one of the top offensive performers on the team to start the year. After Wednesday night’s game, he was second on the club among regulars with a .313 average, four singles, a double, one RBI, and two runs scored. He has forced his way into regular work in the outfield, making four starts in left field and allowing Francona to start right-handed hitting Rajai Davis in center field.

Davis is hitting just .143 through six games and has struggled against left-handers in general, with two hits in 17 at bats after entering the season with a career .293 average against southpaws. Francona has used him heavily in the leadoff spot with the intention of having him on the bases and setting the table for Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Mike Napoli, and Carlos Santana behind him.

Naquin with Sandy Alomar - Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer
Naquin with Sandy Alomar – Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

While the Indians will not know for sure if Naquin can perform against Major League lefties until they give him a shot, his minor league numbers give credence to their caution against using him in those spots.

Naquin, who is a career .287 hitter in the minors, has spent four seasons in the farm system and in only two small sample sizes has he performed well against southpaws. With Mahoning Valley in his first season of pro ball in 2012, he hit .314 (11-for-35) against them and with Double-A Akron in 2015, he hit .324 (12-for-37) in limited work against them there prior to moving to Triple-A Columbus.

As a whole throughout his professional career, Naquin owns a .244 lifetime average against lefties (85-for-349) with three homers and 26 RBI. He has also struck out 93 times, or 26.6% of his at bats, versus left-handers.

There will come a point in the next week or so that the Indians will have to make roster moves to bring Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley back from the disabled list. With the outfield already full of players who are under-performing and with Ramirez seeing the bulk of his time there so far, the outfield depth is the area most likely to be targeted for reduction.

Naquin, who has options remaining, is 1-for-4 this season with a single and a run scored. He has struck out in two of his other three at bats.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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