clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tyler Naquin would be first Opening Day rookie starter for Cleveland Indians in decades

New, comments

No MLB team has gone longer without a rookier starter on Opening Day than the Indians.

Rob Tringali/Getty Images

The Indians have a vacancy in center field at the moment, created by the 80-game suspension handed out to Abraham Almonte a couple weeks ago. There are a number of candidates in camp with the team right now, but the one being given the greatest opportunity thus far is Tyler Naquin, the team's first-round pick in 2012 who has steadily worked his way up through the farm system. Naquin is making the most of the opportunity, batting .444 through 8 games, with three extra-base hits and a .722 slugging percentage. He's also made some nice defensive plays, and had a couple chances to show off his strong throwing arm.

Many prospects aren't given a real opportunity to win an Opening Day job because their team wants to keep them in the minors long enough to game the service time clock and gain an extra year of control over such players. This is what the Cubs did with Kris Bryant last year, waiting a couple weeks into the season so that he wouldn't be eligible for free agency until an entire year later.

Naquin isn't the same caliber of prospect, though; he projects to be a potentially solid MLB player, but not a star. He isn't likely to become especially expensive through arbitration, or irreplaceable upon reaching free agency. If he looks like the team's best option for the start of the season, there's reason to think he'll get the job. (He could always be sent down to Columbus for a couple weeks after Michael Brantley returns and the team has more outfield options, if they do care enough about his service time, because even if everyone knows what's really going on, there's not really anything to be done about it.)

If Naquin does win the job, and is in the starting lineup for Opening Day, he'll be the first rookie to do so for the Indians in a long, long time. Many of you reading this have never seen a rookie start for the Tribe on Opening Day, because it hasn't happened since Andy Allanson was behind the plate for the Indians on April 7, 1986.

In the 30 years since then, every other MLB team has had at least one rookie starter on Opening Day. The team that's gone the second-longest without one is the Tribe's neighbor in northern Kentucky southern Ohio, the Reds. Their last rookie Opening Day starter was Chris Sabo, who went on to make the NL All-Star team and win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. If Tyler Naquin can match Chris Sabo, I'd be down with that. (He'll need to look into getting himself a pair of bitchin' rec specs though.)

Among the best players who made their MLB debut on Opening Day since Allanson did in 1986 are Ken Griffey and Omar Vizquel in 1989, Jeff Bagwell in 1991, Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki (who was a different sort of case, of course) in 2001, Joe Mauer in 2004, Alex Gordon in 2007, and Jason Heyward (2010).

The Tigers in 2010 are the last team to start two rookies on Opening Day, when they had both Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore in the lineup. The Indians last had two rookies in the Opening Day lineup in 1970, when Ted Ford and Roy Foster were both in the outfield.

You may have noticed that every player I've mentioned here has been a position player. That's because there hasn't been a rookie pitcher who started on Opening Day since Al Gerheauser for the Phillies in 1943, when many of the game's best players were serving in the military during World War II. If you count the entire starting rotation for the start of the season (and look at a team's first five games), CC Sabathia in 2001 becomes the Tribe's most recent qualifier.

We're likely at least a couple weeks from finding out if Naquin will break the 30-year drought. If Andy Allanson is anything like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, he'll be calling Terry Francona every night, talking up someone else for the job.