Opening Day Delay Could Move Tyler Naquin Ahead in Race for the Indians' Final Outfield Roster Spot
The Cleveland Indians entered spring training with plenty of questions about their outfield. They departed it with very few answers.
Some clarity was received in a few areas. Franmil Reyes looks ready to step up as their right field power bat. Likewise, Jordan Luplow may still need a platoon partner when a righty is on the mound.
When it comes to the fringe outfielders vying for one of the last remaining roster spots – Bradley Zimmer, Greg Allen, Jake Bauers – the situation remains cloudy.
Said situation may not be as murky anymore thanks to the delayed start to the regular season. MLB’s hiatus allows another outfielder extra time to jump into the fight.
Despite making great strides recovering from his ACL tear, Tyler Naquin wasn’t being considered for a place on Cleveland’s opening day roster. With the season start date now postponed, he’s been given an opportunity to change that.
This is obviously good news for Naquin. His competition won’t see it that way, as there’s a good chance he leap-frogs all three of them in the race for a final roster spot.
To be fair, Naquin was always going to be on the radar when it comes to Cleveland’s outfield. However, with his still needing clearance to resume baseball activities, he likely wouldn’t have been ready to go until late April at the earliest.
This allowed the Indians to kick the can down the road with Naquin while giving Bauers, Zimmer or Allen an opportunity to stand out this spring.
As you can see by their stats from Arizona, said opportunity was one all three players respectfully declined.
Bauers – 28 plate appearances, .143/.143/.179, 11 strikeouts
Zimmer – 26 plate appearances, .200/.231/.440, 10 strikeouts
Allen – 26 plate appearances, .095/.231/.095, one strikeout
Even if you wanted to devalue spring training performances, none of these three had a 2019 campaign which would give them any sort of advantage.
Bauers underwhelmed in his debut season with Cleveland. Zimmer made only a brief cameo, striking out in half his plate appearances. Allen generated the highest fWAR of the three, but with a number which nobody would see as a bragging right (0.1).
Theoretically, if Naquin is at full strength, you could argue he’s not too far behind those three as they race for what could be one final outfield spot. However, there are a few things he has in his corner which vault him ahead of the pack.
For one, while Zimmer, Bauers and Allen each had seasons to forget, Naquin is fresh off the best campaign since his rookie debut.
After a sluggish April (28.8% strikeout rate, 64 wRC+), Naquin rebounded to finish with his best slash line (.288/.325/.467), wOBA (.330), wRC+ (101) and fWAR (1.5) since earning a Rookie of the Year nomination in 2016.
His numbers weren’t all-star caliber. Still, they’re enough to give him the inside track against his competition.
As does the fact 2019 marked his best defensive season in the majors. After providing minimal value in the outfield during his first three campaigns, Naquin generated above average numbers in both Defensive Runs Saved (9) and Ultimate Zone Rating (9.7) last year.
Both numbers represent career highs for Naquin, and also top the respective career bests for Bauers, Zimmer and Allen.
Toss in the fact Naquin is set to make $1.45 million this season, while the other three would be due to make league minimum salaries, and you can see why Cleveland may give him the edge if he’s ready to go when the season begins.
Currently, the Tribe has likely tabbed five players for outfield roster spots - Luplow, Reyes, Domingo Santana, Delino DeShields Jr. and Oscar Mercado. There’s no guarantee the team decides to hand out a sixth.
The Indians choosing to do so likely depends on how confident they are in the idea of giving Luplow everyday duty. Considering his previous struggles against righties, and that those concerns weren’t notably alleviated at spring training, they may not be ready to shift him off the platoon.
Naquin, fresh off a rebound season where 76% of his plate appearances came against right-handed pitching, certainly seems like the safest choice for Luplow’s platoon partner. Sure, he'll need time to ramp up. That said, considering everyone else will be months removed from their last spring training at-bat, he's not alone there.
It’s an opportunity he initially wasn’t in the position to take. However, thanks to the delayed start to the year and underwhelming springs from his competition, he may now be in the best position to grab it.