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Josh Naylor is still in progress

If he can be average, that could be the best thing Cleveland could hope for

American League Wild Card Game 2: New York Yankees v. Cleveland Indians Photo by Joe Sargent/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Who is Josh Naylor?

Is he the league-average hitter he was with the Padres in 2019 and until Aug. 30? Or is he 51% worse than league average (49 wRC+), as he was from Aug. 31 through the end of the regular season with Cleveland? Maybe he’s Babe Ruth reincarnate, as he was in the Tribe’s brief playoff cameo against the Yankees, in which Naylor went 5-for-7 with two doubles, a home run, no strikeouts, three runs scored, and three driven in with an eye-watering 2.286 OPS? Or, maybe, like Matt Schlichting wrote when he was traded, he’s still just a sneaky-good acquisition.

Between all the sides of himself that Naylor has presented in a big league uniform lies the answer. And because of his lack of experience at that big league level, it’s probably still most instructive to consider what FanGraphs wrote about him in the 2019 prospect rankings:

Naylor is a husky slugger with a 55 hit tool, 70 raw power, and a strong Double-A campaign behind him. Now he just needs a universal DH or a trade, because Eric Hosmer is in front of him, and while he’s okay at first base, left field is not an option.

As we saw in his prodigious playoff series, Naylor definitely has the raw skills to meet the 50 future value (average big league player) rating that FanGraphs gave him.

And average big league player would be an extremely welcome development in the Cleveland outfield. Since 2017, the team has had 31 outfielders with at least 50 plate appearances, but only 10 with a wRC+ of at least 100 (zero in 2020, three in ‘19, three in ‘18, and four in ‘17). With just 20% of all the outfielders Cleveland has tried providing average production, a steady bat with some power would be something of a revelation.

If we’re considering who Naylor might be rather than who he is now, however, we have to discard his 2020 output in Cleveland. After being traded, Naylor slashed just .230/.277/.279 with a .049 ISO, putting him at -0.1 fWAR in just 22 games. But it was just 22 games after being traded from a 23-year-old guy with just 383 career MLB plate appearances. The possibility that a slump resulted when a young man tried to live up to the pressure of being traded for a pitcher that has been a Cy Young candidate (when healthy) is so obvious that it feels silly even having to type it out.

But is Naylor really an outfielder? Despite his nice grab in game one against the Yankees, FanGraphs’ opinion of his defense is still the most accurate. In the tiny sample that was 2020, Naylor created 0 outs above average per Baseball Savant; because that sample was so small, though, we can take it with a grain of salt. His 2019 output is more instructive, and in 98 attempts in the outfield last year, he was worth -7 OAA. That is pretty darn bad: 130th out of 148 outfielders bad.

Which leaves first base or DH as the likely landing spots for Naylor, as predicted by FanGraphs. With Carlos Santana’s option unlikely to be picked up following his disappointing 2020, there exists an opening for Naylor at first. Designated hitter will likely remain the province of our large adult son Franmil Reyes, as he is somehow even more defensively challenged than anyone else in Cleveland’s organization. And with the competition at first consisting of Naylor, Jake Bauers, and Bobby Bradley, it certainly seems like it would be Naylor’s to lose. But the front office committed to Naylor as an everyday outfielder upon his acquisition and there really is little competition for left field in the immediate term — Nolan Jones might be the answer in the corner eventually, but not at the start of 2021, and it would be unsurprising to see outfielders like Tyler Naquin or Bradley Zimmer non-tendered this offseason. So, for a little while longer, Naylor might be an outfielder.

Sticking in left field might be a benefit for the young Candian, too, even if it’s not great for the Tribe defense. For one, it shows a level of confidence from the front office, that no matter his struggles they believe Naylor has the stuff to at least keep the team competitive, which may have carry-on psychological benefits for the lefty. Additionally, having Naylor in left might help his numbers compared with the rest of the league. The positional adjustment for left field is -7.5 runs, which makes average play more valuable than the same output at first (-12.5) and DH (-17.5), and average is certainly in Naylor’s wheelhouse (99 wRC+ with San Diego prior to the trade).

In 2020, the average left fielder produced a .248/.327/.424 slash with a .175 ISO and 103 wRC+; first basemen produced .244/.326/.447, .203, 108; and DH produced .236/.320/.420, .185, 100 (the slightly worse numbers for DH could be due to NL teams not having much time to prepare for the universal DH, which could change in 2021). With the initial weight of the trade off his back and the lefty-friendly confines of Progressive Field in front of him, Naylor could settle in and showcase more of his 70 raw power and become a good option, at least for a little while, in left field.

If you’ve been reading Terry Pluto columns, you might be feeling a real sense of dread about the offseason and 2021 season (Frankie gone, maybe Cookie too, no name change, miniscule payroll, etc.), but Naylor seems like the kind of player who can be counted on to provide going forward. Even if his floor is that of an average player, that’s a welcome addition, the likes of which Tribe fans have grown accustomed to going without. Of course, the possibility exists for Naylor to become more as well. He’ll still be 23 as of Opening Day (as scheduled, anyway), and who knows how much more he has to show everyone.