Friday, March 25th was certainly a good day to be Tyler Naquin. The Cleveland Indians outfield prospect made the major league roster, marking his first appearance in the Show, then went three-for-four and homered later in the day to tie up the exhibition against the Arizona Diamondbacks. With all the question marks surrounding Michael Brantley’s recovery, Rajai Davis’s inability, and Abraham Almonte’s illegality, having a no-doubt centerfielder on the roster to start the season is comforting. But it’s more than that -- Naquin the prospect represents the unknown, the possibility, the hope for what could be. A sure thing is nice, but hope is exciting. His presence on the major league roster gives us a chance to think of a bright new future of home-grown stupendousness.
Naquin has been that type of prospect that just hangs around on top ten lists without ever really showing any progress. Since first showing up he’s been leapfrogged by Bradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, Rob Kaminsky, Trevor Bauer, and Brady Aiken. There might be one or two more, but suffice to say, he’s always been good in the Tribe system, but never that shooting star type. He just plugged away at every level, consistently climbing to where he is now. He was a college-drafted position player, a low ceiling high floor type that doesn’t really wow on a lot of prospect lists simply because that magical "potential" wasn’t as high as a fancy high schooler or a guy who can do one thing really well. He’s well-rounded, an attribute which by it’s very nature can never tantalize. But these days it seems like the do it all athlete type has a place more than ever in baseball. And as his MLB.com profile notes, he’s always hit. And that’s what matters.
When you see a guy who has hit .300 at every level he’s had a chance to acclimate to, you can’t help but get excited. The .263 average at Triple-A Columbus last year is a little unnerving, but it was only 50 games and anyway he notched a .784 OPS and a 25/49 strikeout to walk ratio in that stretch. Two to one on strikeouts and walks can keep you in the league and in ramen for a long time. That good ramen I mean.
Bat to ball ability is sometimes overlooked in favor of patience, strike zone discipline and power, but it’s what Naquin has made his money on, as slim as that is in the minors. It’s a big jump to the majors from what he’s been seeing, but it behooves the Indians to give the kid a chance and see if he really does keep punching it around. He’s got the legs for some cheapies and the wrists for some liners. And apparently, as the Royals and D-Backs experienced, the lower body strength for the home run porch.
Naquin is almost done growing at 25, but that doesn’t mean he’s fully assumed his Grown Man Strength. Michael Brantley made me a believer in this theoretical attribute, going from the Most Average Player in Major League Baseball to possibly the best left fielder in the game and an anchor for the offense. This through maturing into his prime and according to him, having to carry a baby around all offseason. Isometrics work, apparently.
Naquin doesn’t have the contact abilities of Brantley, but at 6’2.", 195 pounds, he’s got similar size. His crazy quick swing gives hope the hitting ability will stick around, even if he does whiff more than Brantley does. This isn’t to say he’ll flourish into Dr. Smooth Mark 2, since he isn’t as slick, but Brantley’s career minors batting average is only five points higher, and never hit with as much power as Naquin. Just something to think about.
As far as what to expect out of Naquin as a starter in the majors, projections would have you believe he’s barely above replacement level. It’s an acceptable supposition -- he’s never faced real Major League pitching. Steamer suggests he’ll post a .260/.317/.374 batting line, ZiPS is much meaner at .229/.285/.349. But after seeing that, I can’t help but look to a similar player, a late arrival to the majors at age 25 from the Rays system named Mikie Mahtook, who hit .295/.351/.619 in a 41 game stretch last year. He was a college drafted outfield prospect with the ability ot decently fill all three spots on defense, just like Naquin. He just hit worse than Naquin did in the minors - .263/.334/.408. Forty-one games is too small a sample for a rookie to draw any real conclusion, but if Naquin could ride this insane spring into a hot start, that could be the catalyst the Indians need to not get themselves into a hole early and have to spend two months digging out.
Now I don’t think Naquin is going to slug over .600 at any real stretch, even in my excitement some creeping of reality must show itself. He’s a punchy gap hitter even if he has been annihilating balls in Arizona. But a bunch of doubles, a few triples and a dinger or five before the end of May? Yeah, I can see that happening. Add to that a couple handfuls of stolen bases and covering center at Progressive like we haven't seen since, say, 2007, and that is basically what I think we will get out of the guy.
In all reality, I do expect a pretty good season from Naquin. He’s got a very good, tight swing that can seem to handle the whole zone, he’s demonstrated surprisingly tremendous power with some no-doubt homers the last few days and he’s been hitting everything in sight. My expectation is that translating to something resembling Brantley’s first year in the majors - something like .270/.325/.390. He walks more than Brantley ever did, and since he plays a better defense he’ll be more valuable for that reason alone. But I’m all for a sudden, stunning, nine home runs in the first month type of breakout if he wants to do that. His punches come in bunches if the last few days are to be believed, why not April? Why not Naquin? Why not now?