The Cleveland Indians came into spring training with quite a conundrum in the outfield. One of the team’s core members, Michael Brantley, was rehabbing from shoulder surgery, leaving his status questionable for the first month of the season. A potential starting lineup of Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall and Rajai Davis inspired few. Then, Almonte flunked a drug test, getting dealt an 80-game suspension for his trouble.
Suddenly, the Tribe seemed destined for another one of its patented April slumps. Fans who were once again buying into the hype that maybe, just maybe this team could get back to the postseason were now dreading another opening month filled with cold weather and bad baseball. There was still talent, sure, but the outfield looked too grim to ignore. You couldn’t help but think fans, as well as the Indians themselves were hoping for someone to step up.
Enter Tyler Naquin.
The 24-year-old outfielder has been a member of the club’s farm system for a few years now, and though some thought he could make the jump to the majors this season, nobody honestly thought he’d make the opening day roster.
One astounding spring training performance later, Naquin did just that. And, with Brantley’s status still in question for the season opener, Cleveland should go ahead and pencil Naquin in as one of their starting outfielders. He’s more than proven he’s ready for the challenge.
As mentioned, Naquin really wasn’t expected to break the April roster. Though Brantley was still rehabbing, the thought was Almonte had the center field job locked up. Once his suspension came down, the Indians signed Will Venable in a low-key deal, hoping he or Collin Cowgill would earn Almonte’s spot.
Both ended up having spring trainings to forget. Relying on one of those two to replace Almonte would’ve been a huge risk for Cleveland.
The key word, though, is “would’ve.” As it stands, the way Naquin performed in Arizona should not only ease the Tribe’s fears, but also earn him a starting job.
Defensively, Naquin put forth quite a spring in center field. He’s proven he can handle the job if given to him, as he hardly gave any indication he could be a liability.
However, it was his offense which made his roster spot undeniable.
Naquin is currently batting an astounding .476, showing off the progress he made during Cleveland’s offseason conditioning camp. On Monday against the Kansas City Royals, he hit two home runs, both sailing over 400 feet. Outside of the fact that’s an impressive day at the plate, it’s also notable because power hitting has never been something Naquin was known for.
It’d be one thing if his batting average was this high just in the first week of spring training. It’d be easily shrugged off as a hot start, and it would just be assumed Naquin would come back down eventually.
Instead, he hit well consistently throughout spring, which only indicates he’s more than ready for big league pitching.
As it stands, Naquin’s spot on the roster is guaranteed, but he still hasn’t been penciled in as a starter. One would hope, though, that this is only a matter of time.
The fact is the other options Cleveland has just aren’t playing as well as Naquin. As mentioned, Venable and Cowgill left a lot to be desired this spring. The Indians signed Marlon Byrd last week, but his contract – which will pay him $1 million provided he makes the team – implies he’s nothing more than a utility option.
The only thing which could possibly stand in the way of Naquin starting is if the team still believed he wasn’t ready for the job. His play this spring would make that point tough to argue. Still, the Indians might be wary of rushing him.
At the same time, that was a concern way back when Almonte was suspended. That it’s been a month since and Naquin is still on a tear at the plate should ease any of those fears.
The Indians reportedly told their younger players that, if they wanted a roster spot, they had to earn it. Not only has Naquin completely earned his spot, he’s also earned a starting job. Here’s hoping Cleveland feels the same come opening day.