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Tyler Naquin deserves his roster spot and more playing time

When you play as well as Tyler Naquin has, you shouldn't be penalized with a bus ride to Columbus.

"What more do you want from me?!?!"
"What more do you want from me?!?!"
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2016 season, the outfield situation for the Cleveland Indians was somewhat of a disaster. The main hole was in CF, but that issue was compounded when they lost their starting left fielder and right fielder to injuries. Lonnie Chisenhall is back, but he hasn't been setting the world on fire in his five games back (.125/.125/.250 is not what the Indians envisioned as a solid contribution from RF), and Michael Brantley will be returning soon (today?), but there's no guarantee that he will be up to his All-Star caliber self right out of the gate.

With so much uncertainty in the outfield, any type of positive production out of the outfield would be a welcome addition to a fairly solid lineup. One of the players on the team continues to impress is the player who made his major league debut just a couple of weeks ago: Tyler Naquin.

There has been talk that, when Michael Brantley is activated, Tyler Naquin will be the odd man out and will be lost in the roster shuffle. With Carlos Carrasco being sidelined due to injury, the likelihood of this happening is probably minimized. But let's say that Cookie pitched a gem yesterday and got out of the game injury-free. Someone has to go down to make room for Brantley, and it shouldn't be Naquin.

To start, his batting line has been solid in the 14 games he's played in. To date, Naquin has a line of .303/.303/.394, which is good for a wRC+ of 95. He's slightly below average, but he's also had a total of 33 plate appearances at the major league level. Granted, 33 plate appearances isn't a large enough sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions, so we'd have to expand our data set to get a complete picture of what type of player Tyler Naquin really is.

As Naquin has advanced through the minor league system, he has always been a solid-to-great offensive force. Here are his numbers, starting in 2012 (for each year, I chose the level of play that Naquin had the most plate appearances at):

  • 2012 (A-): .270/.379/.380. wRC+ of 132
  • 2013 (A+): .277/.345/.424. wRC+ of 129
  • 2014 (AA): .313/.371/.424. wRC+ of 122
  • 2015 (AAA): .263/.353/.430. wRC+ of 127

At every level, Tyler has easily earned a promotion (fellow LGT writer Merritt has already done a great write-up on why Naquin being added to the roster is exciting, so make sure you check it out). However, surprisingly, the Indians had some decent production out of a couple of their other outfielders. To put Naquin's performance into perspective, here are the stats of every player who has played outfield for the Tribe this season and their accompanying stats:

  • Tyler Naquin: .303/.303/.394. wRC+ of 95 (-0.1 WAR)
  • Lonnie Chisenhall: .125/.125/.250. wRC+ of -13 (-0.2 WAR)
  • Rajai Davis: .269/.321/.481. wRC+ of 128 (0.7 WAR)
  • Jose Ramirez: .265/.280/.408. wRC+ of 92 (0.2 WAR)
  • Marlon Byrd: .282/.383/.462. wRC+ of 145 (0.5 WAR)
  • Colin Cowgill: .083/.214/.083. wRC+ of -8 (-0.2 WAR)

Again, this is all in very small sample sizes (I don't think anyone anticipates Lonnie having a negative wRC+ all season), but it shows that the Tribe has had some fairly good production from some (Davis and Byrd), some decent production from others (Ramirez), and some poor production by the rest (Naquin, Chisenhall, Cowgill). I think we can all agree that we never want to see Colin Cowgill patrolling the outfield again. You can also assume that Chisenhall will be firmly planted in RF as well as Ramirez will be a super utility player who play all over the diamond (and probably very little in CF). This leaves CF to a combination of Davis, Byrd, and Naquin. Who should get the bulk of the playing time of these three?

Rajai Davis: Based on the limited data from this season, it seems like Davis would be the obvious choice to start in CF. Looking back over the past few seasons, Davis' stats seem to back this up as well. In terms of OPS+, he's been above average for the past 2 season and is well above average to start off 2016.

However, his best season came all the way back in 2009 when he was with Oakland. That season, he slashed .305/.360/.423 with an OPS+ of 108. The next 4 seasons, however, saw Davis have a massive drop off in production with OPS+ ratings of 91, 67, 86, 88. Davis is currently 35 years old, and he's a player whose game relies on speed. He's never hit for much power (he has a career slugging percentage of .388), and his stolen base totals have been in decline since 2012.

As Davis gets older, his skill set is going to continue to decline. The Indians should continue to play him while he's hot, but at some point (this season seems very likely), he's not going to have a lot of value either at the plate or in the field.

Marlon Byrd: Marlon Byrd is interesting because, over the same time frame as Davis, he's been just as serviceable in terms of OPS+. Between 2009-2013, Byrd had OPS+ ratings of 106, 105, 96, 33, 138. His worst year was much, much worse than Davis', but his overall ability was even better than Davis. His most recent seasons saw him hover around replacement value with a 109 and 101 OPS+ in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Byrd, unlike Davis, has had a bit more power over the course of his career (career slugging of .430), and his power has actually increased over the course of the past few seasons. Byrd strikes me as much of a DH/corner outfield player, but not a center fielder. His defense has never been great (with a career UZR/150 of 0.9 in LF and 0.0 in CF), and it's unlikely to get better at the age of 38. Byrd can still be serviceable at the plate, but he is a defensive liability whose time in the field should be minimized.

Tyler Naquin: As mentioned above, Naquin has hit at every level of the minors and, despite a slow start at the major league level, is still managing to hold his own. The difference that sets Naquin apart from the other two candidates is his defense. Naquin has always had good defense in the OF, and that alone can help get him playing time going forward.

Naquin may struggle at the plate due to inexperience in the majors, but there's no reason to believe that his competition won't struggle for other reasons as well. Naquin has done everything that you could want in a rookie not named Francisco Lindor, and he should continue to get playing time going forward. As his bat comes around as it always has, coupled with his solid defense, Naquin looks to be a positive contributor to a competitive Cleveland Indians team.