Even though his first run at the majors ended after just 22 games, the story of Tyler Naquin in 2016 has been fascinating. He did not have much of a chance to make the majors when last season ended, but Abraham Almonte's 80-game suspension followed by Naquin's own great spring instantly endured him to fans and the Cleveland Indians front office alike. He hit well in his first taste of the majors, but does he really have a future in Cleveland?
I have touched on this idea in one form or another every time I write about Naquin, but the issue still remains: Naquin took a while to make it to the majors, and now that he has, a pair of superstar prospects are hot on his heels. Regardless of how well Naquin does in the majors when he returns, Bradley Zimmer is almost guaranteed to take his spot in center field whenever he is ready.
Zimmer started the season slow in Double-A, but a recent hot streak has him as one of the best Akron RubberDuck hitters. He is slashing .232/.348/.484 on the season, with a 14.3 percent walk rate. If there is one thing Zimmer still needs to work on before getting the call to Columbus it's his strikeout rate -- the 29.5 percent whiff rate he currently carries would be the worst of his career at any level over a full season. The most realistic expectation for Zimmer should be sometime in 2017, but crazier things have happened than a top prospect coming up earlier than expected. By that time, the Indians will have lost some of the leverage they have in a potential Naquin deal.
There is always a demand for a competent center fielder who can hit. Naquin has proven himself to be a valuable fielder over his minor league career, and if he can work on his plate approach with more time in the majors, he could get there as an offensive threat, as well. At worst, he could be traded as a platoon option against left-handed pitchers.
The most interesting potential trade matchup could be the Atlanta Braves. The team looks horrible right now, but they have made it clear they are shooting for 2017 and beyond -- that is both when they move into their new stadium and when a number of their top prospects could be making their major-league debuts. The Braves' highest-rated outfield prospect is Mallex Smith, who joined the team in the Justin Upton trade with the San Diego Padres prior to last season. MLB Pipeline ranks Smith as the organization's 11th overall prospect in a sea of top pitching arms.
Similarly, the Houston Astros will be losing their center fielder, Carlos Gomez, after this season. The Houston farm system is mostly void of outfield prospects for the next few seasons until two of their top draft picks from 2015 debut in a few years.
Even if the Indians do not want to trade Tyler Naquin right now -- which is not exactly what I am advocating for them to do -- they could still dangle him out there at the trade deadline or after the season and maybe get more out of him. Waiting it out a little bit longer could also ease other teams' fears about Naquin's health -- assuming he stays healthy for the rest of 2016, of course. Naquin's approach at the plate also has not been great in his 22 games this season, despite the good outcomes, so some more time to adjust could improve his value, as well.
Either way, if the decision is to eventually trade Naquin, it would be better to do it while they still have the leverage of him being a player on the team, instead of when he becomes expendable at the hands of Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier.
One important thing to keep in mind is that this is not Justin Upton the Indians are trading here. We all like to overvalue our prospects, whether we admit or not, so the return will be relatively small in comparison. But that's okay. If the Indians want to maximize the value of their roster, it is not such a terrible idea to trade a player now who will be expendable in a year or two.