Tyler Naquin’s contribution to the Cleveland Indians’ World Series run should not be taken lightly.
For half a season he looked like an absolute stud, a Rookie of the Year contender. He provided us one of the best moments of the regular season when he sprinted around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. But his time as a regular contributor may already be at an end.
Opposing pitchers figured Naquin out to a painful degree in the second-half of last season, leading to an abysmal month of August in which he slashed .193/.238/.351. He rebounded in September and October with a .269/.402/.313 slash, but his power was stunted by high fastballs that he could not hit; his average inflated by a BABIP north of .400. To make matters worse, his struggles carried over into 2017, while pitchers continued to pound him up in the zone where he slugged exactly zero percent in 18 plate appearances. Overall, his numbers were not much better before being optioned for Lonnie Chisenhall on April 14 — a .235/.278/.294 slash with no home runs to speak of.
Then came Bradley Zimmer, the lanky 6-foot-4, 185-pound centerfielder with the stride of a gazelle and a rare mix of speed and power at his position. Zimmer was the Tribe’s top prospect, or close to it, since he was drafted in 2014. He has his own issues, namely strikeouts, but so far those don’t appear to affect all that much as other tools all appear to be intact. He’s struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances, but he’s already showing a great ability to draw walks and a .484 slugging percentage through 12 games. Too small to draw any formal conclusions, but enough that the Indians are not clamoring to get Naquin back in a hurry.
Zimmer’s leapfrog over Naquin was inevitable, unfortunately. Numerous minor-league injuries curtailed a once-promising career path for the former 15th overall selection in the 2012 draft. In fact, that’s where Naquin sits now, on the disabled list with a sore lower back. He has been there, inactive, for the better part of a month now. Leading up to his promotion in 2016, Naquin was consistently slipping down top prospect lists as the injuries piled up and he remained in Double-A for most of three seasons.
You can see the erosion of his prospect sheen most clearly in John Sikels’s rankings at minorleagueball.com. Sikels had him as high as No. 5 prior to the 2013 season, but even then he noted that Naquin would likely top out as a fourth outfielder if he couldn’t hit for power.
Saw him play for Texas A&M. Good swing, gets on base, nice line drive bat, very strong throwing arm, good glove, but I don't think he's going to show much power. If he can hit .300+ he can be a regular, if not he'll be a fourth outfielder.
From there, he fell to No. 9 in 2014, No. 8 in 2015, and all the way down to No. 11 prior to 2016, where Sikels noted he’d be a “perfect fourth outfielder” with no mention of a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.
Naquin looked like a man among boys in Triple-A with a 172 wRC+ through 14 games before the injury this season, but he wasn’t getting the call back to the majors. Even before Zimmer’s call-up, the Indians outfield was full of Naquin-like players in Brandon Guyer, Austin Jackson, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall. The sad fact of the matter is, Naquin’s skillset just doesn’t stick out like it once did. His minor-league record shows a player that must be platooned to protect him from left-handed pitchers, is passable and little else.
I’ve mentioned the eventual fate of Naquin before, how Zimmer would pass him now and Greg Allen would likely do it later, but I didn’t expect his replacement to come so hard and fast. That’s not to say that Naquin’s career in Cleveland is over. But once he does return off the disabled list, it will be difficult for the Indians to find a place for him on the major-league roster. He’s obviously not taking the place of Zimmer, that’s the top prospect’s spot to lose at this point.
Do the Indians want to gamble on Naquin’s figuring out how to hit anything up in the zone, with the knowledge that he will be a well below-average hitter if he doesn’t? Do they take that risk over keeping someone like Abraham Almonte, who isn’t great, but is at least consistent? Or even Austin Jackson, who is showing surprising power since coming off a disabled list trip of his own? This isn’t Tito choosing “his veteran guys” over a young stud, it’s more Tito choosing the more consistent veterans over an oft-injured, post-hype prospect.
It’s just hard to fathom where Naquin fits in other than trade bait for another team wanting to take a shot at him. So to answer my own title: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s next for Naquin, but I don’t think it’s consistent playing time in center field. Bradley Zimmer has done more than enough to at least earn a few more chances to blow it before Naquin takes the throne back. And even if Zimmer does suddenly flop hard, Naquin might not be second in line anymore. His inconsistent bat and inconsistent health have presented a difficult situation.