The Indians announced Wednesday evening that they did not tender contracts for next season to right-hander Jefry Rodriguez and outfielders Tyler Naquin and Delino DeShields. The remaining arbitration-eligible players who were tendered include Francisco Lindor, Austin Hedges, Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton. The 40-man roster currently sits at 37.
“Just grateful for the contributions both [Naquin and DeShields] have made,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said, “and we’ll remain interested in staying in touch with them as we go throughout the winter and keep the possibility of them rejoining the team open. All this means is just we were not in a position at this point to commit to going through the arbitration process with them.”
Because the club had been transparent about its financial losses due to the pandemic, it was expected for at least one of its six arbitration-eligible players to get non-tendered. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Naquin was projected to make the fourth-highest salary of the six (behind Lindor, Hedges and DeShields), ranging between $1.8 million and $2.4 million. DeShields was projected to make between $2 million and $2.4 million.
Naquin dealt with injuries
Naquin was a former first-round Draft pick and promising up-and-coming outfielder when he broke into the Majors in 2016. He hit .296 with an .886 OPS, 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 116 games during his rookie season. Then, he struggled to stay healthy.
He has battled through lower back issues, a hamstring strain, a hip strain that led to hip surgery, a calf strain, ACL surgery and a hairline fracture in his right big toe over the past four seasons, limiting him to just 209 games in that span. Naquin was having his best and healthiest season since his rookie year in 2019 -- hitting .288 with a .792 OPS in 89 games -- when it came to an abrupt end after he tore his ACL while attempting to avoid the outfield wall while making a catch at Tropicana Field.
Naquin returned in 2020 ready to play during the first month of the regular season, but the pandemic gave him more time to rehab his knee in order for him to take part in all baseball activities during Summer Camp in July. However, during an exhibition game against the Pirates just before Opening Day, he fouled a ball off his right foot, which caused him to miss the beginning of the season. Naquin still played in 40 of the Tribe's 60 games, though he hit just .218 with a .632 OPS, eight doubles, four homers, 20 RBIs and 40 strikeouts.
“We’ve had the chance to be around him for a really long time,” Antonetti said. “He’s not only made meaningful, memorable contributions on the field, but is part of the fabric of our clubhouse.”
The Indians will be looking for different answers to their outfield problems for next season, after the group combined to log the second-worst batting average (.194) and the worst slugging percentage (.300) in the Majors. Prospects Daniel Johnson and Nolan Jones, who has been getting a lot of reps in the outfield, may be the solutions the team turns to in 2021.
Age, outfield performance flags for DeShields
After reliever Emmanuel Clase was suspended for the 2020 season due to testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, DeShields was the only piece of the Corey Kluber trade that was able to impact the Tribe’s 2020 squad. Because of center fielder Oscar Mercado’s offensive struggles, DeShields ended up playing more than half of the season in center. He hit .252 with a .628 OPS, no homers, seven RBIs, three doubles and two triples with three stolen bases in 37 games.
DeShields wasn’t expected to be the Tribe’s difference-maker in the batting order, but the team had high expectations of his defensive abilities in the outfield. Though he wasn’t charged with an error this year, there were a handful of times where the 28-year-old did not seem as comfortable in the outfield as he had previously in his career.
“It’s hard to script a more difficult transition to an organization than the one he had to make last year,” Antonetti said, “and he really did so seamlessly, despite some really trying circumstances.”
As the Indians continue to look to get younger, it was hard to imagine the team would want to spend around $2 million for DeShields to still be in the mix alongside their current options in Mercado, Jake Bauers, Jordan Luplow, Daniel Johnson, Josh Naylor, Bradley Zimmer or Jones.
Rodriguez could return on Minor League deal
Rodriguez was a bit of a surprise, considering the 27-year-old is still pre-arbitration-eligible. But the 6-foot-6 righty battled through shoulder tendinitis in 2019 before he was sidelined with back problems in 2020 and his velocity never quite bounced back to where it used to be. The team could attempt to sign him to a Minor League deal, making this move to free up a spot on the 40-man roster as he continues to build his arm back up.
“It was a way for us to remove Jefry from the roster but not limit our options with him moving forward,” Antonetti said. “We could re-sign him back to a Major or Minor League deal without any restrictions at this point. … Our expectation is that he’d be able to come into Spring Training healthy and ready to compete for a spot.”