By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Majors): 116 G, 321 AB, .296 BA, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 6 SB, .886 OPS
Though he was a first-round pick in 2012, Tyler Naquin was never really on the radar for many Cleveland Indians fans. A high average and on-base guy with limited power potential and only so-so speed, Naquin was always on top prospects lists, just never at the top. Nonetheless, Naquin’s steady climb to the Major Leagues in ‘16 resulted in an impressive debut season that landed him third in American League Rookie of the Year voting. Was that as good as it gets, or can Naquin build on it and hold down a starting outfield spot for a good Indians team?
In parts of five seasons in the Minor Leagues, Naquin posted a strong .287/.359/.417 line in 339 games over five levels but hit just 22 homers and stole 47 bases — while being caught 21 times. His consistency and on-base ability got him added to the 40-man roster last Spring, and he made the Indians’ Opening Day roster. After going back and forth to Triple-A a few times early in the year, he stuck in the bigs come June and started in center field for the majority of the year.
Naquin played exactly 58 games before and after the All-Star break, posting better numbers in the first half. While he didn’t necessarily fall off in the second half, his power took a bit of a hit. Before the break, Naquin had a .956 OPS with 21 of 50 hits going for extra bases. Afterwards, his OBP remained basically the same (,374.,370) but his OPS dipped to .809 with 16 extra-base hits.
The left-handed-hitting Naquin platooned for the most part last year and had just 32 at-bats against southpaws. He did manage eight hits against them and, moving forward, could see more chances against them which could result in a dip in batting average. That shouldn’t hurt his OBP, though, as his ability to draw walks is not in doubt. One thing Naquin would like to cut down on is his number of swings and misses. His swinging-strike percentage (SwStr%) of 14.2 was one of the 30 highest among players with at least 300 plate appearances.
Naquin chased pitches a bit more in the second half. His outside-swing percentage jumped one percentage point, and his contact rate dipped a full nine points after the break. His SwStr% rose from 14.2 to 16.8 from Aug. 1 on. Despite this, he still managed to get on base, he just wasn’t making consistently hard contact like he was earlier in the year.
While Naquin doesn’t have the highest ceiling out there, he does have a relatively low floor and could be a Mr. Consistency-type for the Indians moving forward. He gets on base, makes contact and plays a decent if not spectacular center field. His power and speed likely won’t improve much, with 15-15 potential being the absolutely best-case scenario and 10-10 the more likely case.
Manager Terry Francona recently said he wants to give the everyday center-field job to Naquin, and it seems as though it’s basically his to lose. Top outfield prospect Bradley Zimmer could push Naquin if he falters, so he’ll have plenty of motivation to prove he can be a steady force near the bottom of a loaded Cleveland lineup for a full season.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.