It was a tale of two halves for Cleveland Indians center fielder Tyler Naquin.
One was a half in which Naquin was called up and sent down on two different occasions before finally solidifying his role as the left-handed portion of a platoon with speedster Rajai Davis. The former first round pick typically batted eighth and notched a .314 batting average with 9 home runs and 5 triples prior to the All Star Break.
At only 25 years of age, the front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year appeared to be Naquin.
Then came a slight yet concerning decline for the Texas A&M product.
Without Marlon Byrd and Collin Cowgill acting as veteran blockades to his first-year playing time, Naquin was consistently tested with a key role in the bottom half of a first place lineup. His average after the All Star Break was still a respectable .278, but Naquin eventually dwindled to a meager .174 postseason batting average with 14 strikeouts in 23 at bats.
All in all, Naquin finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting, batted .296 and slashed a memorable inside-the-park home run to beat the Toronto Blue Jays in an August affair.
Despite the accolades, Naquin’s remarkable rookie year was punctuated with a rather demoralizing ending.
Naquin's countless number of empty swings at fastballs up in the strike zone and a crucial defensive misplay in Game 6 of the World Series were beyond concerning for Indians fans.
These same fans are now chomping at the bit for another postseason run and curious as to what to expect from Tyler Naquin in 2017.
To commence, it is worth noting that the outfield is far less crowded than it was at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
Coco Crisp is gone, Davis has signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Athletics and Michael Brantley’s lingering injury concerns have created even more of an opening across the outfield positions.
Although the team could add a free agent outfielder in the coming weeks, they will likely turn to their quintet of 2016 returnees including Lonnie Chisenhall, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, Naquin and Brantley.
Logging action in both center field and right field, Naquin appears to be headed for another platoon role. He batted .250 against southpaws in just 32 at bats, but flourished against right-handers with a batting average of .301 in a much larger sample size of 289 at bats.
It is evident that manager Terry Francona trusts Naquin to produce opposite right-handed pitching with capable bats like Almonte and Guyer filling the void against lefties.
Now that Edwin Encarnacion has been added to the mix this off-season, Davis likely falls out of Cleveland’s spending range to open the door even wider for Naquin.
Putting the ball in play
The number one priority for Naquin heading into spring training stems from his high strikeout total.
With a strikeout percentage of 30.7%, Naquin simply did not put the ball in play enough and exceeded the major league average by nearly 10% (9.6%).
Naquin was primarily a leadoff hitter for the Columbus Clippers but his high rate of punchouts with the Tribe does not bode well for a similar role atop Francona’s lineup.
Until Naquin cuts down on the strikeouts, his lower position in the batting order will likely remain unchanged in 2017.
Using his speed
Naquin tallied at least 13 stolen bases in three consecutive minor league seasons with marks of 15, 14 and 13 from 2013-15.
While his hitting prowess is a constant, Naquin’s base-running ability has yet to translate to the next level. In his nine big league attempts, Naquin swiped six bags, his lowest season total since an abbreviated minor league season in 2012.
Aside from his adequate effort in the stolen base column, Naquin displayed a jaw-dropping spectacle of speed during his walk-off inside-the-park home run and showed hustle by only grounding into four double plays out of the 31 opportunities he encountered.
The speed and athleticism is certainly there; it is just a matter of using it consistently.
Knocking in runs
Despite having the fourth highest batting average on the team, Naquin’s overall production with runners in scoring position barely edged its way past the Mendoza Line in 2016 (15-75, .200 batting average).
When an RBI opportunity presented itself, the rookie fell short on a multitude of occasions.
With quality hitters like Jose Ramirez and Chisenhall above him, Naquin will need to elevate his performance in clutch situations if he aspires to be an integral part of another World Series run.
Hitting the ball hard
Unlike the three aforementioned weaknesses of his game, Naquin has thrived on hitting the ball hard courtesy of his 92.19 mph average exit velocity and his average batted ball distance of 224.59 feet, both well above their respective league averages.
Naquin nearly matched his minor league total of 22 home runs (339 games) by cranking out 14 long shots with the Indians in 2016 (116 games).
This pleasant surprise of power is similar to that of Francisco Lindor who only hit 21 home runs in his minor league career before notching 12 in 99 major league games his rookie season.
While Lindor and Naquin are completely different players, their progression into double-digit home run hitters is a testament to the Tribe’s minor league coaching and developmental programs.
Similar to Lindor, Naquin is a homegrown talent acquired through the MLB Draft.
Clint Frazier was traded to the New York Yankees, Bradley Zimmer batted a mere .250 in 2016 and Yandy Diaz only has 52 career appearances in the outfield. Although the Tribe’s minor league system is chock-full of high-ceiling prospects, few have materialized into candidates to surpass Naquin and make the 2017 Opening Day roster.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances or injuries, Naquin should receive another 300-400 at bats in order to prove his value as a former Big 12 Conference Baseball Player of the Year and 15th overall pick in the 2011 MLB First Year Player Draft.
Naquin has emerged as one of the game’s brightest young hitters and could be budding into an everyday talent for many years to come. By showcasing his speed, fine-tuning his plate discipline and adjusting his approach with runners in scoring position, a limitless bank of potential is eagerly waiting to be unlocked.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.null