Naquin Option Tough to Swallow, But Does Make Sense

Very rarely in the game of baseball would you find a player hitting .315 optioned to the minors. But that was the case in Cleveland on Saturday as the Indians optioned rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin to Triple-A Columbus to make room on the roster for starting pitcher Cody Anderson’s return from the Clippers organization.

It is of little fault of Naquin’s, who has done nothing but steadily impress since putting on an Indians uniform in spring training. After hitting the cover off of the ball in Goodyear, Arizona, he earned the right to come to Cleveland. He hit .397 in camp with four home runs and seven runs batted in.

Naquin’s option was strictly a business decision, but even knowing that, it is a hard move to accept. While some concerns can be found in his numbers at the plate or in some of the decisions he has made in the field, they were hardly significant reasons to send a successful player back to the minors.

His option was in the cards all the way back to the start of the season, when the Indians began the season with a pair of outfielders, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall, out of the lineup while on the 15-day disabled list. The roster constructed by Terry Francona, his staff, and the Cleveland front office gave very little wiggle room based on the lack of players on the roster with options remaining.

In particular, the additions of several non-roster invites to the 25-man roster at the end of spring training made it extremely difficult for the Indians to hold any sort of flexibility with the roster that they had. They elected to keep outfielder Marlon Byrd and a pair of relievers (Joba Chamberlain and the since outrighted Ross Detwiler) who, in addition to needing spots on the 25-man card, needed spots created on the 40-man roster. This led to the losses of outfielder James Ramsey, utility guy Zach Walters, and reliever Giovanni Soto, all depth pieces, but young enough pieces that you hate to just give away for cash considerations from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs.

Instead of keeping around relievers like Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, or even Soto, who all had options remaining, the Indians made it so that the revolving bullpen door of years past was bolted shut by adding in players who they could not part with with relative ease. Not having room on the 25- and 40-man rosters can be a good problem to have, but in Naquin’s case, it cost him a spot in a lineup on which he had rightfully earned time.

The Indians started the season with free agent additions Rajai Davis and Byrd occupying time in the outfield in addition to Naquin, Collin Cowgill, and utility man Jose Ramirez. When Chisenhall returned, Cowgill was optioned. The trip to Columbus for the 25-year-old Naquin was actually delayed a couple of weeks when Brantley returned, as the injury to Carlos Carrasco created a roster spot for Dr. Smooth, but left the Indians starting rotation a spot light. With off days in the schedule, it was not a pressing need until this past weekend, when the Indians needed a starter for Saturday’s contest against the Kansas City Royals.

Cleveland was already in a time crunch trying to find enough time for the outfielders on the roster. With Brantley, Davis, Chisenhall, Byrd, and Naquin all needing and deserving playing time, there just were not enough opportunities to go around. Ramirez had already seen a decline in his time and was serving more as an alternate option in the infield at third base for Juan Uribe.

Something had to give, and Naquin’s spot was the one that was the least costly to cut. Making a move elsewhere, a la Chisenhall or Byrd, would have been permanent, as Chisenhall has shown potential and may very well have been claimed off of waivers if not traded first, and Byrd has provided enough right-handed punch that a team would not want to just cut bait.

Davis has played well and can handle the center field spot. Brantley could back him up as needed, and Chisenhall has already appeared in two games this weekend in center with Ramirez as another outside possibility if the team needed it.

“When we sent Cody back to the minor leagues, we had the extra roster spot,” said Francona on May 7 when discussing Naquin’s option. “We kind of knew we had an outfielder too many. When I was looking at making out the lineup, I was having a tough time getting a rotation where I felt comfortable.”

The only other feasible moves would have been by tinkering with the bullpen, but just like with the outfield, any moves made there would have likely been permanent losses for the club. Detwiler had already been removed from the relief staff and outrighted to Columbus, but Dan Otero and Chamberlain were putting up strong enough numbers to start the season that someone may have sought their services for their bullpens. The same could have very well have been said about guys like Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship. Tommy Hunter was just returning from his rehab assignment and the Indians spent a bit of money for his services, and setup man Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen were certainly going nowhere.

That left Kyle Crockett as the only other alternative move to Naquin that would have not meant potentially parting ways with a player for good. However, Crockett is the only left-hander on the entire pitching staff and gives the bullpen some balance.

If the Naquin decision was tough for the Indians, just think ahead to the potential decision that could occur when the club gets to activate number two starter Carrasco. Who goes then? Does Bauer stay on the staff and Anderson gets optioned? Does Bauer go to the bullpen and bump a Chamberlain, Otero, or another?

While Naquin was able to get his service time clock started quickly in 2016 by being on the Opening Day roster, the move does play into the Indians ability to control him for an extra year if he spends just a couple of weeks back in Columbus. It would be the difference between him reaching free agency after the completion of the 2021 season versus 2022. That does not appear to be nearly as much of a contributing factor as his ability to be optioned, but baseball is a business first and it is worth noting on a team that waited to bring up rookies Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor last season until the super-two cutoff risks had passed.

As it stands, Naquin does need some work.

In 22 games this season, Naquin was hitting .315 with a .327 on-base percentage. While the high average was among the best numbers on the team (and among rookies throughout baseball), if he wasn’t getting on base with a hit, he wasn’t getting on base. It may have minimized his ability some to help generate more runs for the offense by setting the table from the bottom of the lineup for the more potent top-of-the-order hitters.

He had two doubles and two triples to go with 13 singles, had scored eight runs, and knocked in two. He was 0-for-1 in stolen base attempts and, probably a bit more concerning for the Indians staff, had struck out 19 times against one walk in the early going.

“Offensively, I thought he did a pretty good job,” said Francona. “He was hitting at the bottom of the order, but he did a pretty good job. I tried to explain to him what being a Major League center fielder on a good team entails.”

Being an aggressive hitter at the plate was part of what allowed him to impress during the spring and had paid off to a degree in his brief stint at the Major League level, but long term, when the average regresses back to a more expected norm, the low walk count could become a negative.

He could benefit from a chance to see left-handers more regularly now with Columbus. He was 2-for-5 in an extremely limited opportunity against them with Cleveland and has had his struggles with southpaws while working his way through the farm system. He had just 50 games logged at the Triple-A level during his minor league career, where he hit .263 last season, and was 1-for-5 with a single and a strikeout in his Columbus debut on Sunday while hitting leadoff and playing center field in a 7-5 loss in Toledo.

In addition to that minor work at the plate, the Indians acknowledged that they wanted to see him continue to make progress on things that they had been working with him defensively. He has handcuffed himself some by only playing in center field throughout his minor league career, so one could speculate as to whether he may see time in the corner outfield spots to increase his flexibility for Francona’s lineup, both for this season and the many years ahead, when other top prospects Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier will be on the roster and holding down outfield spots.

Naquin has taken some bad (or maybe, unconventional) routes to some balls throughout the early going, but was able to make up for the path chosen because of the speed that he possesses. His first step has not always put him in a position to succeed with ease.

In one of his games in his final week of action, he pinned himself too close to the outfield wall and was unable to get the height needed on his jump to make a grab of what would be ruled a double for Justin Upton in the series against the Tigers. The previous weekend, Naquin did not get a good break on a ball in Philadelphia off of the bat of David Lough. His hit landed in front of Naquin and his run later that inning would prove to be the decisive run in a 4-3 loss.

“We’re working on his jumps and the best way we can do that is by coming out and working in batting practice and taking balls off the bat,” said Indians bench and outfield coach Brad Mills at the beginning of May in a story on “We’re working on his set and ready position, first step quickness, and his routes getting to those balls.”

They are little tweaks to make, but it is harder to make those adjustments when your playing time is limited by the arm of the starting pitcher taking the mound for the opposition. Now, back in Triple-A with the Clippers, he can get the regular playing time to test out his adjustments while also getting the tutelage from the coaches on an every day basis.

“I talked to our minor league people and they know he’s a real good athlete and a very good outfielder,” said Mills in the same story. “But he’s been in a situation where he’s had to adjust at each level he’s been. He’s also gotten hurt and missed a significant amount of time. So we’re in a situation where we’re constantly working with him and to his credit he’s been really good at working on those things. I think it’s just going to take some time.”

Naquin impressed with his hustle and hard work that he has clearly put in. He has kept his name on the radar for the Tribe, not just for this season, but for the future.

He’ll be back. If not sooner, he’ll be back by September 1 for what hopefully will be a pennant or playoff push for Cleveland.

Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

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