When the Indians arrived in camp to begin their spring preparations ahead of the 2018 season, Tyler Naquin was on the very edge of my radar as a potential Indians player. In the race for a spot on this club’s Opening Day roster, I had hardly factored him in at all.
That was before last night. Settled on my sofa, on a cold Sunday evening to watch a split-squad Indians team take on the Mariners, with snow still on the ground in below-freezing England, Mr Naquin suddenly reappeared in my sights.
The 26 year-old outfielder, and former 1st-round draft pick, all of a sudden made me sit up and pay attention. Naquin swung the bat really well against Seattle, recording 3 hits in 4 at-bats, and recording 2 RBI in an Indians rout. Each swing of the bat felt like it had a real message behind it, every hit a statement, declaring that Naquin deserved your attention.
I hear what you’re saying though; It’s one meaningless spring training game, in a month full of meaningless games. You’re right, 100% correct, but for Naquin these games are anything but meaningless. These are the only games he’s got to make an impression. So far this spring, Naquin is slashing .282/.349/.538 (BA/OBP/SLG) for an .887 OPS, with 2 home runs and 6 RBI over the course of 39 at-bats.
Not bad, but not enough perhaps to really change Terry Francona’s mind (so far). When Naquin burst onto the scene in the spring of 2016, he slashed .397/.444/.759 for an 1.203 OPS, with 4 home runs, over 58 at-bats. It was enough to earn him a place as a starter on a team that made the World Series.
Two years later, Naquin’s prospects don’t look quite as rosy. The folks at Fangraphs predicted Naquin’s impact in 2018 to be limited at best. Their quick opinion was scathing, declaring Naquin a ‘complete non-factor’ ahead of this season. Ouch.
In their defense, his 2017 numbers don’t help his case much. Naquin had just 40 plate appearances with the Indians last year, despite being an integral piece of the successful 2016 squad (when he accumulated 365 at-bats). He spent the rest of 2017 at Triple-A Columbus, where he performed very well: 10 home runs, 51 RBI, a .298/.359/.475 slashline in 330 plate appearances.
However, when a center field position became available, the club turned to Bradley Zimmer, another bright outfield prospect, and never looked back. Zimmer looks to have usurped Naquin as the chosen center fielder of the Indians’ future.
Naquin’s future as an Indian isn’t over by any means. With Michael Brantley easing his way back into the lineup, and with doubts still surrounding his longevity, there could be room for Naquin to spell the veteran left fielder from time-to-time, maybe even replace him entirely if the injury bug strikes Brantley once again. Brantley’s return to health appears to be on schedule however, with Opening Day a distinct possibility, becoming more achievable with every passing day.
Therefore, a bench role would appear to be the most realistic target in Naquin’s crosshairs, especially for a junior player on a contending club like Cleveland.
However, he faces yet another obstacle in his path. Naquin is a left-handed hitter, and by all accounts a solid one. Unfortunately for him, the Indians lineup is already loaded with left-handed hitters, with all three projected starting outfielders (Brantley, Zimmer and Chisenhall) batting from that side of the plate.
What the Tribe could really benefit from is a right-handed hitter off the bench. Coincidentally, they had three such hitters vying for spots on this team: Rajai Davis, Melvin Upton Jr., and Brandon Barnes.
As of this afternoon, news just broke that Upton and Barnes are out of the running. Barnes was the quintessential darkhorse of the trio, and with a .143 batting average in 35 at-bats so far this spring, was unlikely to stick with the Indians when they broke camp. He has since been reassigned to the minors. Upton has been released entirely, the 33 year-old failing to make the impact he would have hoped. His numbers this spring (37 AB, .189/.250/.297 slashline, and 1 HR) tell the story.
Davis has realistic ambitions though, and the veteran is now Naquin's direct competition for a bench spot. Davis is also a known quantity, having made such a positive impact in 2016, so he likely had the advantage over Upton and Barnes, and possibly still possesses an edge over Naquin.
Ultimately, Naquin is probably going to have to rely on some breaks going his way if he wants to see significant playing time in Cleveland this year. Much as it pains me to say it, injuries to key players do happen, and a guy like Naquin needs to stay ready for that sort of opportunity.
It might be the only one he gets.