Tyler Naquin‘s 2016 season has been a lesson in receiving an opportunity and doing everything you can with it.
Cleveland’s 25-year-old rookie outfielder was not supposed to make the club’s Opening Day roster. When disaster struck the Indians outfield in the offseason, the door was flung open for Naquin, or any one of countless outfielders the Tribe invited to spring training, to earn a roster spot.
Michael Brantley, Cleveland’s all-star caliber left fielder, was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and already expected to miss the start of the regular season when training camp opened in February. Shortly thereafter, the club learned it would be without its expected starting center fielder Abraham Almonte due to a failed drug test.
Opportunity was staring a host of journeymen and young outfielders to make an impression on Cleveland management and be in the majors when the regular season got underway.
Naquin was the one who stood out. A player who seemed destined for Triple-A Columbus, he did nothing but hit and impress during the Cactus League campaign. He hit an eye-popping .397 with four home runs during spring training.
When incumbent right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall got hurt late in camp, meaning the Tribe’s entire anticipated Opening Day outfield would start the year on the sidelines, it was impossible for the Indians to keep Naquin off the big league roster. Even with the additions of veteran free agents Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd, along with oodles of other guys who had prior Major League experience, Naquin stood out among all outfielders during spring training.
The question as the season was starting, however, was whether Naquin was one of a long line of spring training sensations who looked good against pitchers simply fighting for roster spots or if he really could hit Major League pitching. The answer to that came quickly and has continued to come from a guy who has gone from spring training darling to possibly being in the American League Rookie of the Year conversation.
Naquin, a first round selection and tabbed 15th overall in the 2012 Amateur Draft, has the pedigree to be a very good player. Many of baseball’s big thinkers, though, thought it would be this year’s second half or even next year before that translated to success at the game’s highest level.
Cleveland’s latest rookie sensation, looking to follow in the footsteps of Francisco Lindor from a season ago, Naquin has shown that more minor league seasoning may not have been needed. Despite hitting only .270 in 67 games at Triple-A, Naquin has continued to hit at a solid clip with the Indians.
The first-year player had his breakout moment on April 14, with a three-hit game against Tampa Bay. It raised his average to .444 and he has not been lower than .300 since. Naquin has maintained the same level of consistency he showed in the Arizona heat, if you consider spring training stats are always a little inflated due to facing pitchers who have no business near a Major League clubhouse or well-known pitchers who are simply working on things and not throwing their best stuff.
It has not been easy for Naquin to keep that level of consistency going, considering the roller coaster ride he has been on this season with two trips to Columbus.
Despite a solid .315 batting average in 54 at bats, Naquin was optioned to Columbus on May 7. Cleveland was finally getting healthy in the outfield. Brantley and Chisenhall had both recently returned. Though neither Davis or Byrd were hitting at the same clip as the Tribe’s rookie, it was Naquin who had the minor league options to be jettisoned away over two veterans whom the Indians brain-trust figured would be important to the club this season.
Still, Naquin had made his mark with the big league club and with the Indians fans. It would not be too long before he would earn opportunity number two for the season. Brantley’s shoulder started ailing again and he had to go back on the shelf, where he has been since mid-May. Chisenhall had to go on bereavement leave. Naquin was back in the majors on May 13. This time, it was just a five-day stay. However, he continued to hit, going 3-for-9, a .333 batting average. He returned to Columbus once Chisenhall returned.
Opportunity struck for a third time at the end of May. For the second time in less than half a year, an Indians outfielder was suspended for a failed substance abuse test. This time it was Byrd, who earned a 162-game ban, ending his season and probably his career.
Again it was Naquin the Tribe turned to and again Naquin has just continued to hit. He returned to the team on Jun 1 and this time he just may stick around a little longer. Naquin has thrown some new wrinkles into his hitting, including more patience at the plate and some power.
Naquin had walked just twice through his second demotion after the May 17th game, a span covering 63 at bats. Since returning to Cleveland at the start of this month, he has four free passes and 20 at bats. Better pitch selection was likely key in the young player’s recent power surge. He has knocked four homers in his eight games in which he at least registered an at bat. He had a stretch of three straight games with a long ball, becoming the first Indians rookie to do that since Jason Kipnis in 2011.
Naquin has hit .333 in June. His overall batting average is .322 with 28 hits in 87 at bats. Due to being a yo-yo, he does not have enough plate appearances to qualify to be among MLB’s batting leaders.
He hopefully should get there. Naquin has proven by now that he deserves the chance to stick around for a while. He has done nothing but hit since the beginning of March. He has stared down questions about being ready or not and survived two return trips to the minors while maintaining a level of consistency that few players in Cleveland’s lineup have shown this year.
Among the Tribe’s regulars, only Lindor and Jose Ramirez are hitting anything close to a .300 clip. Until a recent dry spell, Lindor was hitting well over .300. Naquin is a big help to manager Terry Francona‘s batting order.
The biggest knocks against Naquin now are his high strikeout rate, as he does have 31 of those, and questions as to whether the lefty can hit left-handed pitching consistently. Naquin’s strikeout rate can be forgiven for a young player, especially since he is so good when he makes contact. As for facing southpaws, he has shown in a brief sampling that he may be able to. He has three hits in 10 at bats, a .300 average.
Over the next month or so, Cleveland’s outfield could again get crowded, but the club has to find a way to keep one of its most consistent hitters in the majors. Ramirez and Davis are everyday players right now in the outfield. Chisenhall, a veteran on what may be his last chance to show the Tribe what he can do, has been decent but not spectacular. Naquin has basically, since coming back, served as a fourth outfielder to spell the other three regulars.
Things could get interesting on July 1, when Almonte is eligible to come back to the Majors. Brantley, currently with no timetable to return, could be back shortly after the All-Star break.
As things stand now, the Indians need to have Ramirez and Davis in the everyday lineup. Davis, while not great at the plate, is one of the Tribe’s best base runners. Ramirez has been, arguably, Cleveland’s most consistent hitter this year. He is a super utility guy, however, who can play about five different positions. That gives Francona room to juggle the lineup and the Tribe to carry an extra outfielder when Almonte returns. By the time Brantley returns, Naquin will either have established himself as a true Major Leaguer or proven he needs a little more time in the minors.
As of now, Naquin needs to be with the Indians. He has taken every opportunity thrown his way thus far and run with it. In a lot of seasons he would be entering the conversation of being among the top rookies in the league. This year, something of a stronger American League class of first-year players exists, yet still, he is second in batting average among all AL rookies with any significant playing time.
Naquin deserves to get more playing time and remain a consistent part of the lineup. Between now and July 1, the rookie should have ample opportunity to prove himself before another big league outfielder enters the mix. If Cleveland’s rookie handles that opportunity as he has the others before it, he should have no problem staying in the Major League mix and should be seeing the field almost everyday.
Photo: Ted S. Warren/Associated Press