Naquin Looking More Like His 2016 Self

Just as quickly, suddenly, and surprising as Tyler Naquin burst onto the scene and the Cleveland Indians radar in 2016, he fell off of it almost more rapidly and shockingly a season ago. After one good season and one miserable campaign, the Indians had no idea what to expect for Naquin’s third go-round for the ball club.

Luckily, for Naquin and the team, the outfielder’s third big league season has him squarely back as a solid member of the big league roster. So far in 2018, he is resembling the good version of himself of two years ago rather than the one every member of the Tribe organization would just as soon forget from last summer.

Other than a strained right hamstring that shelved the 27-year-old for about a month, this season could not be going much better for the utility outfielder. Naquin, who spent time in all three outfield spots this season, has played in 36 games through Saturday. Heading into action on Sunday with the Detroit Tigers, he was hitting a strong .305 with a pair of home runs and 14 RBI. He may not be putting up superstar numbers. However, the Indians have enough of those guys in the batting order that all Naquin needs to be is the solid contributor to the lineup he was in the Tribe’s 2016 World Series season. Nearing the halfway point of this year, that is exactly the production Naquin is providing.

To see Naquin bounce back after last year is a great sign in his development. Last year, coming off a 2016 campaign in which he finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, Naquin got off to a bad start, then got injured and then never got his footing again once healthy. He was passed in the pecking order by other young outfielders in Cleveland’s minor league system, namely Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen. Naquin played just 19 games for the Indians last year. He had eight hits in 37 at bats, for a .216 batting average. He had two doubles (his lone extra base hits) and just one RBI.

It could actually be that 2017 was a blessing in disguise for the young player. It showed him Major League Baseball life was not going to come as easily as it seemed to in 2016. As a relatively unknown rookie in 2016, Naquin forced the Tribe’s hand in adding him to the Opening Day roster with an impressive spring. Injuries to Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall opened up a spot on the roster and Naquin took advantage. He made the Indians take notice in his first big league season as he hit .296 with 14 bombs and 43 RBI. He had the moment of the year that season with his walk-off, inside-the-park home run that August against Toronto. It seemed Naquin, out of nowhere, had etched himself a name in the Cleveland outfield.

However, a rough postseason, in which he hit .190, seemed to bleed over into 2017. Much as Naquin earned a shot and took advantage when guys were hurt in his rookie year, so to did Zimmer and Allen in their initial showings last season. Zimmer would have been on the Tribe’s postseason roster a year ago had he not been stepped on in a head first dive into first base in September. Allen was on the ALDS roster. Naquin, despite a September call up, was nowhere near the conversation for the playoff roster. He was only added in the September wave so he could hit MLB pitching and perhaps get a little confidence back. That may have worked, actually, as he hit .279 in September, playing sparingly.

Naquin came into camp this past spring with the idea of regaining his place as an outfielder the Indians could again keep in their plans, both for the present and future. He showcased himself well in the spring with a .286 batting average. With Brantley opening this season on the disabled list and manager Terry Francona needing to mix and match in the outfield, Naquin’s strong spring earned him a big league roster spot out of the chute.

After a slow start, in which Naquin was hitting just .214 through games played on April 8, the outfielder got himself going and resembled the hitter of two seasons ago. He ended the season’s first month hitting .298 and was at a whopping .333 when he got hurt on May 11. When Naquin returned on June 15, he picked up where he had left off, hitting safely in his first three games back to extend his hitting streak split up by his disabled list stint. Indeed, Naquin has put himself back on the Tribe’s outfield map and it could not have come at a better time.

Chisenhall has had calf issues this season, Brandon Guyer has really struggled, Zimmer struggled and is injured at Triple-A, and Allen was sent back to Columbus when his bat went ice cold. Only Brantley has been healthy and highly productive in the outfield this season. Naquin has actually been the Tribe’s second-best outfielder, as far as hitting and consistency, at this point of the season and it really is not all that close a race with number three.

On a team in which two of the three outfield spots are unsettled, Naquin will continue to get opportunities. With Brantley and Chisenhall both free agents this winter, Naquin could be out to prove that he could be a regular outfielder on a contending ball club for the next several seasons. A lot is at stake for both Naquin and the Indians over the second half of the season.

The Indians are looking to start running away with the A.L. Central Division and more consistent outfield play would certainly help that. Naquin has shown he can help there. If he can continue to hit at a solid level, Naquin could overtake Zimmer and Allen as the young outfielder with the brightest future and claim first shot at regular playing time going forward. Naquin being a strong contributor over the final few months of the regular season would be a win-win for everyone. It would help Naquin, it would help the Indians, and Tribe fans would surely enjoy the additional hope for October success.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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