Can Naquin Avoid Sophomore Slump and Become a Steady Center Fielder?

Tyler Naquin capitalized on a disastrous outfield situation last spring in Goodyear, Arizona, and helped the Cleveland Indians fill a desperate need with his surprise breakout during camp to win a spot on the 25-man roster to open the season.

Despite several return trips to Triple-A Columbus to fine tune some things in his game both offensively and defensively, the 25-year-old left-handed hitter worked for large stretches of the Major League portion of his season as a platoon center fielder with veteran Rajai Davis and put together a solid and largely impressive season during his rookie campaign.

With Davis officially relocating on a free agent contract with the Oakland Athletics, it will be that much more important for Naquin to now prove to the Indians brass during spring training that he can handle the grind of regular playing time in center field, against both right-handers and left-handers.

There were question marks on both sides of the game for the fifth-year outfielder heading into the year, but he dispelled some of those in February and March. His defensive work was considered raw, but he possessed a strong arm that could help make up some for bad routes run. At the plate, he had been inconsistent during his minor league career, especially against left-handers, and working on that on the fly at the Major League level seemed concerning. His combined work at the minor league level led to a .243 average and .319 on-base percentage against southpaws while posting much more positive results against righties, who he batted .309 against with a .371 OBP in nearly two and a half times as many plate appearances against them as the lefties.

He carried his spring success into the first month of the season, slashing .341/.356/.477 in 19 April games (12 starts) with two doubles, two triples, and two runs driven in. But in May and in a crunch with Michael Brantley returning to the roster, Naquin was sent down to Triple-A Columbus to get regular playing time. His stay lasted just six days before he was recalled, but five days after that, he was optioned back to the Clippers, remaining with the club through the rest of the month.

The Indians recalled Naquin for good on June 1 and he put up numbers that seemed to indicate that he was finished with the minor league life. He was in the lineup 23 times in the month, including 20 starts, and hit the cover off of the ball again. In 78 trips to the plate, he totaled 22 hits and ten walks, drove in 15, and scored 12 times. His five doubles, three triples, and six homers in the month contributed to a .338/.434/.785 line with a 1.219 OPS at the plate and a stake of the American League Rookie of the Month.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Not to be outdone, he nearly replicated the same numbers in July. In 20 games (18 starts), he made 78 trips to the batter’s box and had 24 hits and eight more walks (.348/.416/.681). He added five more doubles and six more homers to his season tally and repeated his run production with 15 runs batted in. He was again named the AL Rookie of the Month.

He ran into his first true test of the season in the dog days of the summer. Still seeing steady playing time in center field, his August average was just .193. Strikeouts, which had plagued him steadily over the first two-thirds of the season (he averaged a strikeout in 29.1% of his plate appearances over the first four months), remained a problem again as he struck out a season-high 25 times in 63 plate appearances (39.7%).

But while there were struggles at the plate, he did produce consecutive highlight games for the Indians on August 18 and 19. In the final game of the series with the Chicago White Sox, he pinch-hit for Roberto Perez in the bottom of the ninth and delivered the game-winning sacrifice fly. The very next night, he entered the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-hitter and came back around in the ninth. He followed Jose Ramirez’s game-tying solo homer with one out off of Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna with one of his own, but making his all the more memorable was that his did not clear the fence. His walk-off inside-the-park home run was the first such game-winner by the Indians in 100 years and created what may have been the play of the regular season in Major League Baseball.

There was little time to rest and dwell down the stretch as he played in 25 more games to close out the regular season. The batting average jumped back up some for the month (.269) and he found himself standing at first base after a trip to the plate quite a bit (.402 OBP included 15 singles in 18 hits and a season-high 13 walks and two hit by pitches).

The book on Naquin appeared to be exploited during the playoffs, when Davis’ experience in the game put him on the field more frequently. The Indians’ rookie logged just four plate appearances (striking out three times) in two games of the American League Division Series against Boston. He had a pair of doubles in 12 plate appearances over four games of the American League Championship Series with Toronto, but struck out six times. He appeared in five games of the World Series, but made just nine trips to the plate with a single, a walk, a sacrifice bunt, and five more strikeouts.

He hit .174 in the postseason with two singles, two doubles, and two RBI while striking out in 56% of his plate appearances. Over the course of the regular season, he played in 116 games, slashing .296/.372/.514 with an .886 OPS. He had 18 doubles, five triples, 14 homers, 52 runs scored, and 43 RBI.

His cool off in the final two months of the season may have cost him in the AL Rookie of the Year race, where he finished third behind Detroit pitcher Michael Fulmer and New York catcher Gary Sanchez.

With Davis no longer an in-house security blanket for Naquin in center, the team will need him to step up and prove himself ready to handle the stress of being an everyday center fielder. The outfield already has an unknown quantity with the return of Brantley in left and would appear to be utilizing a platoon in right field with Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer.

Abraham Almonte will be back in the fold and ready to contribute for a full season, which gives the Indians a versatile switch-hitting outfielder who can play all three positions. He may be able to alleviate some of the difficulties Naquin had with lefties, as he owned a .279 average against southpaws last season. Putting more pressure on Naquin may be the presence of fellow first round pick Bradley Zimmer in spring camp this February after ending his season at the Triple-A level and a stint in the Arizona Fall League. The Indians also worked minor leaguer Yandy Diaz in the outfield last season to try to find a way to give the young high-average hitter a chance to make a contribution to the Major League roster in the near future after splitting time between Akron and Columbus last year.

Naquin showed off plenty of things to like and some skills that needed to be refined over the course of his rookie season. He supplied unexpected power at the plate in bunches, hitting a surprising 14 homers after hitting just 22 over his entire minor league career. He is fast enough to stay out of the double play (just four on the year), but his speed has not altered the game much on the base paths (6-for-9 stealing bases) with the exception of the inside-the-park walk-off. His defense left something to be desired at times, putting more focus on the need for solid contributions from him with the bat. Those numbers fell back to a more reasonable and expected output as the season went on as opposing pitching staffs learned exactly how to exploit the holes in Naquin’s game, especially up in the strike zone. He will need to figure out left-handed pitching if he wants to see more regular time in the lineup, as he hit .250 against them during the season, but also logged just 40 plate appearances against them. He hit .301 against right-handers over 325 plate appearances.

With several internal candidates knocking on the door in Columbus and a viable option on the roster already in Almonte, the pressure will be on Naquin to adapt to the Major League game and to avoid turning his end-of-the-season slump into a prolonged sophomore slump.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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