Tyler Naquin’s star has likely passed him by. As so often happens in baseball, for a brief moment Naquin burned so, so bright, letting people dream that this young fireball of excitement could be the next big surprise for Cleveland. But reality struck as the 2016 season wore on, his weaknesses were found out, and he faded from our view and mind. It’s spring again, and Naquin’s name is of course in the mix for one of the final outfield spots for the Indians. As cool a guy as he seems to be, and even if he looks like the dictionary definition of “baseball player”, this might be his last shot.
Look, it’s hard to give up on a former first round pick. Especially one that keeps on hitting when he goes back to the minors. Despite dealing with back injuries that saw him end up on the minor league disabled list, he still posted a .298/.359/.475 line in Columbus. He hit 10 homers with the Clippers in only 80 games after knocking only 22 combined over his previous five minor league seasons. Those all seem like good harbingers for some kind of breakout, and of course that is all tempered by a .358 BABIP. Regression lurked in Columbus, just as it bit him in Cleveland.
The Indians know all this because they’re good at player evaluation, and they’ve gotten to see him up close for his entire career. But they keep giving him a chance because there’s something there. And they need to fill roster spots. But they also surely see something, that’s why they picked him in the first round, even if it was considered strategic overdrafting to be able to afford more players in later rounds. He came out of Texas A&M a “polished hitter” with a good line drive stroke, but that always seems to end up meaning they hit a lot of grounders. He’s the type of draftee that’s supposed to have a quick transition to the majors. So it could be we know as much as the Indians, and there isn’t much hope. Maybe he just beats up minors pitching because they’re simply worse, and can’t exploit that hole of his at the top of the zone.
There are decent aspects to Naquin of course, the bones of some kind of decent player. He hits the ball hard - over the last two years in the Majors, his non-grounder exit velocity is 94.2 mph, good for 79th in baseball over that span and above noted power hitters like Eric Thames, Bryce Harper, Michael Conforto. He just hasn’t hit the ball not into the ground enough for that to matter. It’s wrong to just assume any player can make the adjustment, start hitting fly balls and pull a Thames or Jose Bautista as they approach their 30’s. If it were that easy everyone would do it, though we did just see the most homer-happy season in history. So something was being done league-wide, and the Indians also happen to be on the forefront of this hitting evolution. Their minor league system hit the third most total home runs in 2017, after all. You wonder whether Naquin got some pointers this past summer that could pay dividends.
It would be an easier thing to assume Naquin could go hardcore fly ball if he had an incredible knack for getting the bat on the ball. Reading scouting reports from his time in college, this was supposed to be a quality of his, but it has yet to show. Someone like Michael Brantley, who has been at the top of the league during his career in contact rate, that quality makes it seem like he could make the adjustment to start lofting the ball without too much contact dip. But Naquin’s career contact rate is 72.6 percent, five points below league average. Him getting more hack-happy than he’s already been (his 50.4 swing rate in the majors is 4 points above average, and his 36.9 percent O-Swing rate is seven points above average) could lead to a hideous batting line, and dim his faint MLB dreams even further. Add a changed swing just means more uncertainty, more moving parts, and probably less success. Still, if the dream is the majors, why not risk it all?
The Indians have a decision to make with the outfield, even if it’s a boring fourth outfielder kind of decision. Their list is rife with uninspiring names, but someone has to play. Bradley Zimmer is the name we care about, and hope combines with worry around Brantley’s. The rest of it will be some combination of Abe Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Melvin Upton, Naquin Rajai Davis and apparently Brandon Barnes. There’s a reason people including myself banged the drum for some kind of outfield help in free agency. Two years ago at this time the Indians had their outfield of the future on the farm with Naquin, Zimmer and Clint Frazier. Frazier brought Andrew Miller, Zimmer looks to be the center fielder of the future, if only for his glove. Naquin needs to do his part.
In a selection of underwhelming players, going with Naquin isn’t that much worse than any of the other guys not named Brantley, ZImmer or Chisenhall. But even is just too many left-handed bats. And they all have flaws anyway- one will platoon, another that might not hit and a third might be hurt. Throwing in the question mark that is Naquin’s ability to even perform a major league level. But there’s something to be said for betting on potential over a sure thing, especially when that sure thing is Melvin Upton and his 85 wRC+ in 2016 and being in the minors in 2017 or Abe Almonte. This is almost assuredly Naquin’s last shot at being something more than a quad-A player that bounces back and forth from Columbus when someone gets dinged up. it’s a story we’ve seen written time and again in Cleveland. It’d be nice if this chapter at least had a happier ending.