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Tyler Naquin: 2016 Starting CF for the Cleveland Indians

As the hot stove ebbs and flows following the winter meetings two positions have remained a focal point, third base and center field. Yet, while the Indians have been attached to rumors regarding Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie and even Joe Panik with a possible shift to third, their outfield pursuits other than Pollock have seemed passive. Indeed, it is likely that the Indians can only afford to substantively  upgrade one of third base or center field.

Therefore, we must consider which position requires more attention. Which brings us to Tyler Naquin.

Jeff Ellis a frequent podcast partner dropped the following regarding Naquin early in the off-season:


Naquin is a compelling player who ultimately has divided many in the scouting and Indians prospect community. In evaluating Naquin as a solution for center field, we must ask ourselves whether his components can create a roughly two WAR Center Fielder. In order to consider this question I will divide the analysis into two components: offense, and defense

Offense:
First Naquin's offensive strengths.  Naquin's minor league BABIP's are outstanding. In his two largest sample sizes in the minors he has posted BABIP's higher than .350. BABIP stands for batting average in balls in play, which encompasses all balls in play and strips away non-contact outcomes. In the big leagues we worry about inordinately high BABIP's because of random fluctuation but in the minors they are an indicator of contact quality and a proxy for the batted ball data now accessible at the big league level.

Further, when BABIP a contact quality indicator can be merged with scouting reports, we can access a more comprehensive understanding of hit tool quality. When drafted Conor Glassey of Baseball America call him “the best pure hitter in this year’s class.”. Indeed, Naquin's ability to barrel the ball consistently has been noted by many including Keith Law.

For a visual of Naquin's stance and swing this video has tremendous angles:


In Naquin we have extremely high BABIP's which are a tool for measuring contact quality and the hit tool married to scouting reports, which can raise our confidence as to Naquin's ability to hit for an acceptable average at the big league level.

Now we can integrate the other three consideration of offense; power, plate discipline and baserunning.

Quite simply, Naquin's swing is one which does not have the requisite loft to create power of note. It is a line drive stroke which creates the aforementioned contact quality. Naquin would likely produce 8-12 HR power and an ISO hovering around .100.

Naquin's plate discipline is a concern. The strikeout rate has been higher than league average, which considering he was often average age or older for his level is not ideal. While Naquin's swing creates a lot of line drives, there is ultimately concern as to whether its length creates some swing and miss issues.

The strikeout rate will ultimately serve to mitigate or undermine the hit tool as his above average contact quality will be weakened in the batting average department by his strikeout rate.

Naquin has speed which is a tick above average. Though one would expect steals from a center field type, Naquin looks like someone who will add more value in 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home scenarios with five to ten stolen bases tossed in on top.

Steamer projects Naquin as .257/.313/.371.

This is a pretty fair projection though it is fairly easy to envision a mid-career peak of .280/.340/.380.

Ultimately, in Naquin's first big league campaign it is reasonable to expect a wRC+ range between 85-95 with additional baserunning value. The statistic wRC+ is weighted runs created, which attempts to credit a batter for each individual outcome with 100 being league average. Therefore, Naquin projects to be slightly below league average in his first big league season with baserunning value which may help make him a league average offensive contributor.

Defense:

Naquin's defense is fundamental to his value, league average or above  in center field married to the offensive production above would be equivalent to a two WAR player or roughly league average which would be a huge value to the Indians.

Everybody Hates Cleveland Founder, Jim Pete, covered Naquin when he played in Carolina had this to say about his defense:

I think he's a smart center fielder. I think he does his homework, takes good angles, and does all the things that make a good outfielder. I don't think he has exceptional athletic ability though. He's fast, but not quick...if that makes sense. His arm is a plus for sure. If I wasn't paying attention, I'm not sure I would NOTICE him in the outfield.
 As we move forward through other reports, I think something Jim said hits at the heart of Naquin's defensive skill, I am not sure I would NOTICE him. I think this sets the ceiling to Naquin's defensive value, while average to slightly above, his range is not exceptional enough to be noticeable.

Prior to 2015, Fangraphs writer and now Assistant Director of Baseball Operations with the Atlanta Braves Kiley McDaniel wrote the following  about Naquin's defense:

He’s still basically seen that way, but has more believers that he can stick in center field and has more momentum with the bat. Naquin is an above average runner with good instincts that looks like he’ll be able to stick in center field, but his above average arm is plenty for right field if he can’t, which is where he played in college.
Entering 2015, questions remained as to whether Naquin would stick in center field, which is not a particularly positive evaluation of his defensive chops. Further, his arm, which is a plus-plus tool has led many to think he is destined for right field.

However, there are differing views, C.J. Wittman of Baseball Prospectus Scouting wrote the following from evaluating Naquin in 2014:
Natural reactions off the bat; reads ball well off the bat; tracks ball well; routes are much more refined than last year; has speed and ability to cover gap-to-gap.
Wittman gave Naquin an above average grade for his defense in center in terms of range.

As route efficiency and range goes, it seems that each of these three analysts see Naquin as somewhere near average be it a tick above or a tick below. The positive for Naquin is that defensive value has another component, which is arm value. Now, range value is a significantly larger component of defensive value, however, having a plus arm adds defensive value. Naquin has an elite arm which has graded well with every scouting service.

Naquin's plus arm likely has the ability to shift his defensive value from roughly average to a tick above average.

If Naquin can pair a 85-95 wRC+ with a average to a tick above average defense, he can be a roughly two WAR player which would upgrade center field and allow the Indians to focus their resources on third base. Of course this is all accepting Almonte's existence but it is quite possible that for the first half of the season the Indians will need both Almonte and Naquin playing a lot. Naquin has a tremendous chance of being league average and for the Indians that is a cheap, valuable addition.

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