Monday, March 19, 2018

There's Something About Tyler

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.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Bush League Ramble - 2018 Indians Preview

Steve Klein at the fantastic Bush League Ramble recently asked me to contribute a 2018 preview piece for his site and I was more than happy to oblige. Steve has collected a bunch of UK baseball fans to write about their teams this spring, and he requested I contribute the Indians piece.

Click the link below to see my preview and my thoughts on the Tribe ahead of the season opener in just a couple of weeks' time. Be sure to check out the rest of his site, there's a lot of quality writing.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Bat Flips & Nerds - Ken Griffey Jr and Me

I was lucky enough to have an article posted today on the fantastic British baseball site Bat Flips & Nerds. England Tribe is a home for all things Indians but on the odd occasion I will write about other players and other teams.

I had a story about the legendary Ken Griffey Jr. bouncing around in my mind and I wanted to share it, as well as write a short tribute to the Hall of Fame outfielder.

If you have 5 minutes, head over to their site by clicking the link below:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Key To Kipnis

Jason Kipnis was on the cusp of stardom.

It felt like only yesterday when he broke through in 2012 to take sole ownership of second base, before becoming an All Star in 2013, cementing himself as a fan favorite.

He appealed to me instantly. He wasn't afraid to get his uniform dirty. He reminded me of Dustin Pedroia, only with hair. Second base has always been one of my favorite positions; if I played ball, it's the spot around the diamond I could imagine playing.

An injury ravaged season slowed his progress in 2014 but Kipnis rebounded with style the following year, earning his second All Star appearance. In 2016 Kipnis was a key contributor on an Indians team that pushed the Cubs all the way in the World Series, and his power increased substantially that season, hitting a career-high 23 home runs.

After nearly five years of consistently superb production, barring the hiccup in 2014, Kipnis was almost a household name, almost a superstar.

That's when 2017 happened.

2017 was not so kind to Kipnis. He had an utterly miserable year with injuries (possibly a hangover from the physically and emotionally exhausting postseason of 2016). He began the year on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, and made two more trips to the DL because of hamstring issues. His body betrayed him constantly.

Over 90 games and 373 plate appearances, Kipnis batted just .232 with 12 HR and 35 RBI in the regular season.

As the Indians were preparing for the postseason, Kipnis took up the mantle of replacing the injured Bradley Zimmer, filling the glaring hole in center field that the rookie had left behind. Kipnis had not played the outfield regularly since college, and hadn't seen any time there since 2009, when he made 7 appearances in center field during his first year in the minor leagues.

Undaunted, Kipnis performed admirably in the final weeks of the season, especially when you consider he was fresh off the disabled list and being played out of position. In a disappointing October for every Tribe player, it was Kipnis who came up with the defensive play of the postseason.

Now, for the first time in over half a decade, Kipnis is entering Spring Training in a position of uncertainty. He's gone from being a core piece on this squad to something of an afterthought.

Where will he play? Will he even be here?

There was talk this winter of the Mets potentially putting together a package deal for Kipnis that never materialized. I am thankful that didn't happen.

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are the centerpiece of the Indians lineup now, and many fans want to see Ramirez become the full-time second baseman. The 2017 AL Silver Slugger winner for third base certainly has the ability to play second. In fact, many would say Ramirez is more comfortable partnering Lindor than he is at the hot corner. Would Kipnis accept a permanent position move?

What Kipnis needs most is stability. To see Kipnis return to the guy we knew only a year or so ago, to see that incredibly dynamic player that was an essential piece of the puzzle, he needs to be healthy and settled. Kipnis is the kind of player who would run through walls for his team. He would do anything Terry Francona asked of him.

I'd argue that he shouldn't have to, and Francona seems to agree. "More than likely, he'll play second. The winter isn't over yet. The way we're aligned, that's what we're prepared to do." Francona confirmed as much to Kipnis on Sunday; "I said go out and be a second baseman."

Kipnis turns 31 years-old shortly after Opening Day but he remains an extremely important player for the Tribe. "We know what we have in here," said Kipnis. "We proved it two years ago, knowing that we’re very capable of getting as far as we want... Now, it’s just to prove it to ourselves and to our fans that we owe it to finish what we started."

Out of all the players on this 2018 Indians squad, perhaps Kipnis has the most to prove of them all.