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Defense Is Key For Indians’ Naquin

Drafting 15th in 2012, the Indians selected Texas A&M right fielder Tyler Naquin. A collegiate standout, Naquin earned the Big 12 Player of the Year Award before Cleveland selected him and shifted him from right field — where he started 115 games as a freshman and sophomore — to center field. As Marc Hulet noted last month, Naquin’s ability to play his new position will determine his success.

The transition to center will be tough on the Texan because the threshold for performing as an average center fielder in the major leagues is incredibly high. Consider the athletic ability of the game’s center fielders: Trout. Gomez. McCutchen. Gardner. Fowler. Jennings. Ellsbury. Nearly every player who starts at the position is an elite athlete.

Athleticism isn’t everything, but Naquin’s speed and quickness is a gear behind those players whose defensive metrics will be compared against his.

Ultimately, the longer the Indians avoid sliding Naquin the wrong way on the defensive spectrum, the better. With Cleveland’s outfield stocked, Naquin may never break through. This past offseason, the Indians signed Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million contract to be their center fielder. They also signed Nick Swisher to be a part-time outfielder over the same term, and they traded for outfielder Drew Stubbs as well. Naquin could be major-league ready by early 2015 and the Indians will have to decide whether to tender contracts to Stubbs and/or Michael Brantley and figure out if Naquin fits into their plans.

Whether Cleveland opts to keep Naquin in center or moves him back to right, his arm and route running will be assets. Arm strength and accuracy aren’t the most important tools. They are only relevant when the fielder has the opportunity to make an assist or deter a runner from taking an extra base, which inherently requires the fielder to have the ball when that situation arises. Still, Naquin’s cannon will make runners thing twice before attempting to take an extra base.

New to center field, Naquin made a tremendous read on a ball against Wilmington last month that should have been a double. He broke into the left-center-field gap to cut down a slicing line drive in stride. While the day was not without tribulations — Justin Trapp spun Naquin around on a triple — it was a solid defensive display.

The reason why Naquin’s future defensive home is so important is because he doesn’t project to hit for power. If he returns to right field, the burden on his bat may be too great to overcome. At the plate, Naquin is the quintessential table-setter. His high batting average can be attributed to good bat control and his gap-to-gap approach. At his best, Naquin is lining pitches, both on the plate and on the outer half, towards left-center field. When he stays within himself, he has a flat swing with little weight transfer and leverage that will produce doubles — though not high home run totals. Still, at times, he looked susceptible to pitches on the inner half.

While his statistics don’t indicate a good approach — he has a 6.5% walk rate and a 22.6% strikeout rate — he’s a disciplined hitter who works the count in his favor. With just one above-average offensive tool, he’ll need to draw walks to reach his ceiling.  With the amount of pitches he sees, his walk rate should increase as the season progresses.

At 22-years-old, with two college seasons under his belt, Naquin is too advanced for the Carolina League. To be challenged, he’ll need to face pitchers who can pound him inside with velocity and make him uncomfortable. Right now, he’s content to work the count and rope pitches the other way. After another trip through the league, his development will be best served by facing Double-A talent in the Eastern League.