When Abraham Almonte was suspended for using a performance enhancing drug at the beginning of spring training, it created a void in the middle of the outfield for the Cleveland Indians.
Not that Almonte is Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. in their primes, but he did enter the off-season with a leg up on the starting job after hitting .264 with a 776 OPS in August and September of last season.
He also played solid defensively.
The front office didn’t really bring in a great deal of competition either. Sure, they signed Rajai Davis as a free agent, presumably to be a platoon partner for Almonte, who is much better from the left side of the plate, but they filled the spring training roster with a much of back up types for the outfield.
Of course, part of the reticence to bring in a veteran is the impending arrival in 2017/2018 of Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, both of whom have played CF in the minor leagues.
So, who gets the bulk of the time in center when the 2016 season opens?
Many speculate Davis, but at 34 years old, can he handle the job on an everyday basis or defensively?
Jose Ramirez has seen some time there in the exhibition games, but he will have to play some 3B too, spelling another player with some age, Juan Uribe.
Although we believe Ramirez can certainly be an everyday player in the major leagues, it seems the Tribe brass likes him more as a guy who can fill in all over the diamond.
That’s where Tyler Naquin comes in.
Cleveland’s former first round pick in the 2012 draft, the left-handed swinging Naquin has enjoyed a very good spring, and should be given the first shot at the position when the regular season opens at Progressive Field on April 4th.
Yes, we know that he has played only 50 games at the AAA level, hitting .263 with Columbus last season, but he did have a .353 on base percentage, and a 784 OPS.
That followed a stint at Akron where he hit .348 in 34 games (887 OPS), improving on his numbers at the AA level in 2014, when he hit .313 (795 OPS).
Although the AAA experience isn’t great because Naquin has had problems staying healthy, you have to remember he also played in the Arizona Fall League in 2013, where he broke out, batting .339 with a .400 on base percentage.
The AFL attracts a lot of top prospects, and Naquin acquitted himself very well against that high level of competition.
However, there are two reasons Naquin should be the CF come Opening Day unless he falls flat on his face the rest of this month.
First, he’s going to be 25 during the first month of the season. There’s no reason to protect his service time because by the time he can be a free agent, he will be 31 years old, and supposedly on the downside of his career.
Second, he has the most upside. The other contenders for the job, guys like Collin Cowgill, Shane Robinson, and Will Venable are proven players, and all would fall in the average to below average categories.
Why not put the kid out there and see if he can do the job? At the very worst, he won’t be much below the three players we just mentioned.
The Indians should bet on the success of a player they developed. Coupled with his defensive ability, he’s the best choice for Terry Francona to open the season with.