In what can only be described as an ideal situation for exactly one person, Michael Brantley is starting the season on the disabled list and Tyler Naquin will be replacing him in Seattle.
The Cleveland Indians call the decision cautionary, wanting to make sure Brantley is able to handle the full load when he returns, which would be great. Having Brantley return to anything resembling his 2014 or ‘15 form would be a major boost to the Indians. A month ago I wrote about Naquin facing a future where his major league dreams have all but faded, blocked both by players ahead of him and his own talent. He’s been handed a second shot at fulfilling his dream, a chance thousands of players would do anything to even have once. What can he do with it?
It’s hard to know what kind of player Naquin is now, because spring training is so often a world of lies, and the last time we saw him healthy was two season ago. Over the last three years his OPS in Arizona has gone 1.203, .904 and .873. His BABIP those same years has fallen too though, from .487 to .387 and now .325 this year. That, at least, is encouraging, even if, again, it’s hard to read anything in to. Adding to that, his entire 2017 was one wreathed in injury, so if he’d actually made changes throughout the season to fix that gaping hole in his swing or his propensity for swinging and hitting ground balls, we can’t really tell what was real.
But I am at least excited to see if he made any improvement over the last year or so. Any time a fun yet very flawed player disappears into the mists of the minors, you have to hope they’re making adjustments and wonder how they’re working out. And based on those spring numbers, there’s a glimmer of something. For one thing, his 11/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his best spring ratio ever, and his 1.08 groundout-to-flyout ratio at least tells something of a tale of more loft to his swing. Last year it was 4.00, the year before 1.50, so he’s at least in this small sample size gotten away from grounders a bit. All that said, his March consisted of a 12-for-48 stretch and a 10/3 K/BB ratio, after he beat the hell out of the ball in February. So maybe he’s still kind of bad. Or maybe he was just working on stuff. We don’t get worked up over, say ,Edwin Encarnacion’s 6-for-50 spring. He’s just “working on stuff”. Obviously it’s not a fair comparison, but Naquin knows it’s about the process in Arizona, not results. He impressed enough to be at least a fill-in, now he has to run with it.
None of this means much of anything if he simply reverts to the misery of 2017 come Thursday. It’s doubtful that he give Michael Brantley the Wally Pipp treatment. He isn’t that good. But he is 27, just the same year that Brantley emerged from anonymity to be an MVP candidate. It’s silly to think that’s a legitimate possibility for Naquin now, but it was silly to think that of Brantley in the spring of 2014, wasn’t it?
Look, I admit to being a fan of Naquin’s against all good logic and obvious evidence. I know there's bias here. I know he’s got major swing problems and defensive deficiencies. But I don’t care. He’s’ just the most baseball-y looking baseball player the Indians have produced since Grady Sizemore, and that alone forces me to root for him. And when he was on fire in 2016, it was just the coolest thing. Wanting desperately for him to set the world on fire again is just the dragon chasing that reckless fandom can become, but that doesn’t dissuade me at all. The new season is just dawning, and with it comes the unbridled hope that everything good is going to happen
He’s a placeholder for Brantley, the rational mind demands we recognize that. But this is that shot I wrote about. This is that chance for him to show everyone that he, too, can play baseball at the highest level consistently and well. He’s had more chances than most to demonstrate it. Maybe he’s lucky, maybe it’s fate, or just nothing at all, the mere existence of a replacement level player on a team with an injury-prone starter and nothing more. This whole stint of his with the big club could just be forgotten by mid-May. But sometimes baseball gives you a little dose of magic. We got it once, two years ago. An encore would sure be neat.