With Michael Brantley opening the season on the DL, Tyler Naquin has made the Indians’ Opening Day roster. The former first round pick finished third in Rookie of the Year voting two years ago, but has experienced a dramatic decline since then. He only played in 19 games for the Indians all of last season, and was on the DL dealing with back injuries when he wasn’t playing for Triple-A Columbus.
Naquin, 26, has two options left, and is likely headed back to Columbus once Brantley is activated. But what if he doesn’t? There’s hope that he can stick around, as slim as it may be.
Manager Terry Francona has said that Naquin’s opportunities to start the season will come in left field, which makes sense with Bradley Zimmer entrenched at center field and Lonnie Chisenhall holding down the fort in right. We also know now that Rajai Davis and Brandon Guyer will round out the rest of the Tribe’s outfield.
It will be interesting to see how Francona, who loves platooning almost as much as he loves bubble gum, manages his outfield while waiting for Brantley to return.
Guyer is recovering from last October’s wrist surgery and was only able to appear in one Cactus League game this spring, so I wouldn’t expect to see much of him in the early goings. When healthy, he’ll platoon in right and left field, primarily against lefties. If he can replicate his .336/.464/.557 slash line from 2016 against left-handed pitchers, Guyer will be the perfect complement to Chisenhall (even though I think Lonnie’s splits last season suggest he can be an everyday player, but that is a diatribe for another post).
Davis, meanwhile, is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his 12-year MLB career, but he has the versatility to play all three outfield positions. Don’t expect much from him, for however long he remains with the team.
This means plenty of early opportunities for Naquin, who I wouldn’t be surprised to see starting in left field in Seattle on Thursday night.
Naquin has had a solid if unspectacular spring, batting .283 (15-for-53) with two home runs in 23 games. In Columbus last season, he posted a .298/.359/.475 line and experienced a bit of a power surge with 10 homers in 80 minor league games. But hitting minor league pitching has never been the problem. And for the first four months of his rookie season, major league pitching didn’t seem to pose much of a challenge either, at least until pitchers found the gaping hole in his swing at the top of the zone.
It’s difficult to say what Naquin would need to do to earn a spot on the roster beyond Brantley’s return. The alternative would be to DFA Davis, and I’m not sure how willing the front office would be to go that route with minor league options left for Naquin.
But with both Brantley and Chisenhall perhaps out the door after this season, there will be outfield spots up for grabs, if Naquin can prove himself.
The path to a more secure future with the Tribe likely begins with reducing his strikeout percentage. It dropped from 30.7 percent to 22.5 percent last season, but that was when he also saw his major league at-bats shrink from 365 to 40. The question will be if he can sustain that over more at-bats, but he may not get that kind of time. The league average in 2017 was 21.6 percent, but FanGraphs is not optimistic he can come close to that this season, with ZiPS projecting a 27.8 percent strikeout percentage — and that is with 407 plate appearances.
He’ll also need to continue to show the home run potential he has flashed sporadically the last two seasons. His .411 BABIP as a rookie was unsustainable, so regression was to be expected, but his slugging percentage also bottomed out to a career low .270 last season with the Indians. If he can reproduce (or even add to) his home run total from 2016, Naquin would represent a much-needed power bat in the outfield. Last season, the Indians’ outfield finished 19th in the league in slugging percentage (.424) and 26th in home runs (50).
Defensively, there is no future for him in center field as long as Zimmer is in Cleveland, but there is an opportunity in the corners if he can become a serviceable outfielder. Defensively, he has been something of a liability in the past — he was worth -5 runs defensively as a rookie, according to FanGraphs — but if he can play all three outfield positions, that at least adds to his value. ZiPS represents the most optimistic of the projections on FanGraphs, projecting Naquin will be worth -2 runs defensively this season. For comparison, just one Tribe outfielder was worth positive runs defensively last season and that was Bradley Zimmer (+6.1).
Barring injury, I don’t expect Naquin to be much more than a fourth outfielder this season (if he can justify a roster spot over Rajai Davis), but there is absolutely a path to an everyday outfield spot in his future. He just has a lot of work ahead of him to get there.