Flash back a year, Naquin was a becoming a favored jersey purchase in Cleveland, an eminent hairstyle consultant, and the focal point of perhaps the most iconic photo in the past decade of Cleveland Indians baseball.
Naquin posted 2.4 WAR, contended for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and looked as if he had a productive if unclear big league future. A year later, Naquin has played in just nine big league games and with Bradley Zimmer as well as Greg Allen being shown organizational priority, Naquin appears to be an odd man out in the near term and the long term.
Indeed, Naquin has failed to even supplant Abraham Almonte, who despite his precociousness is a fairly vanilla fifth outfielder. The issue, for Naquin, is in two parts: What does the future hold? Where is his future?
Naquin is not unique in that perception of his abilities is often sliding from extreme to extreme while rarely reflecting his actual value. Naquin has his flaws: a poor defender in center field, a middling baserunner for his offensive profile, and a propensity to swing and miss. Indeed, Naquin’s inability to make contact with an elevated fastball has been bludgeoned to death, especially for a player with less than 375 big league plate appearances.
Yet, it would be unfair to punish Naquin for being forced to play center field because they had no other options entering 2016. Naquin is an average or above average defender in right field where his athleticism and speed profile more effectively. Further, Naquin has hit right-handed pitching at every level which is the dominant side of a platoon. A player who can produce against the dominant side of a platoon and play decent defense in right field is a useful player. It is a description which sounds similar to how one would describe Lonnie Chisenhall. For most teams, this sort of player would be useful and hold a bench position with 300 or so plate appearances. However, the 2017 Indians are loaded with left-handed hitting that makes Naquin little more than a redundancy. Jay Bruce, Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, and- when healthy- Michael Brantley, makes for a roster full of left-handed production.
The future for Naquin in Cleveland is murky. With Zimmer being the future in center field, as well as Greg Allen/Lonnie Chisenhall/Brandon Guyer being options under control for 2018, not to mention potential options on Brantley and Bruce; Naquin has a fairly small window. Of course, if one of Bruce or Brantley leaves, and the other is injured for a chunk of time in 2018, all of the sudden Naquin becomes an important player, which is why his future may be one of frustration.
Naquin, while imperfect and at times frustrating, has big league skills which would make him useful for a number of big league teams. However, Naquin’s value as a depth piece with the capacity to be productive in a secondary role likely outweighs his trade value to other teams. Tyler Naquin is not the starter many thought he was in August of 2016 but he is of use to the organization and is part of the depth central to this teams ability to continue to contend in light of injuries.
Editor’s note: Speaking of injuries, Mike Hattery wrote an article for Fangraphs that details the divide between the data available to players versus the data available to teams and how the differing viewpoints between them make the current age a dangerous one for the players.