PHOENIX -- The shirt that Tyler Naquin wore during a morning workout earlier this spring issued a reminder of his potential. The navy blue top featured a red rock-on emoji -- a fist with the index finger and pinkie pointing up -- across the chest.
Indians fans should get the reference.
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One of the most memorable images from the Tribe's 2016 season came from Naquin. After a mad dash around the bases against the Blue Jays on Aug. 19, Naquin slid across the plate, rose quickly and fired his fist to the sky while Progressive Field rocked. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment -- a walk-off, inside-the-park home run -- and Naquin made the most of that split second just before a mob of teammates crushed him to the dirt.
"I've come along way since two years ago," Naquin said on Monday morning.
Naquin is no longer the outfielder who burst onto the scene with Cleveland in '16, when his torrid spring performance won him a job on the Opening Day roster, and his strong season led to a third-place showing in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. This spring, Naquin is on the outside looking in when it comes to the Indians' outfield, and is trying to put last season's trials behind him.
Right now, Bradley Zimmer is poised to open the season as the Indians' starter in center field, and Lonnie Chisenhall is set to garner the most at-bats in right. Cleveland could use some right-handed complements for its outfield. Naquin hits from the left side. There is some uncertainty in left, given Michael Brantley's ongoing comeback from right ankle surgery, so that might be Naquin's opening.
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Indians manager Terry Francona does not doubt Naquin will do everything in his power this spring to convince the team's decision makers that he belongs in the big leagues.
"He competes like crazy," Francona said. "He sees that there's some openings. He's not going to back down from that. It'll be fun to see how his spring goes. We saw him, two springs ago, literally play himself onto the team."
Before the '16 campaign, Naquin hit .397 with a 1.203 OPS in 22 Cactus League games, forcing Cleveland's hand when the time came to construct the season-opening roster. As the Tribe's primary center fielder that season, Naquin turned in a .296/.372/.514 slash line with 14 home runs, 18 doubles, five triples and 43 RBIs in 116 games. Francona utilized him mostly against right-handed pitching.
Last year, Naquin again made the Opening Day roster, but the success of the previous season did not carry over. He was optioned to Triple-A Columbus in mid-April, and spent 80 games in the Minors (compared to 19 with Cleveland), during the year. The outfielder also dealt with injuries, including a persistent lower back issue that sidelined Naquin from May 3-June 12.
"That was tough, man," Naquin said of last season. "But, you look back on it, during that time it's hard obviously in the moment, but it's part of it. It's a process, and I think everybody knows that."
Naquin said he learned a lot through last year's troubles.
"Absolutely," he said. "You let the game speed up on you a little bit and you try to do too much, you try to press, you try to force it. Then, you're not the player that you are. I believe in just, you've got to go out and play your game. Everybody brings something different."
While Naquin was rehabbing his back injury with Columbus last season, he saw Zimmer rise to the Majors and seize control of the job in center. Zimmer is now just a few lockers down the row from Naquin in the Tribe's clubhouse, but is standing in his way for one of Cleveland's roster spots.
Naquin has nothing against Zimmer. What he wants is to join Zimmer in the outfield.
"Bradley Zimmer is one of my best friends already in life," Naquin said. "There's no [hard feelings] there. Me and that dude hang out every day, in fact, in Spring Training. We're both pulling for each other. We want to do it together. There's no one-on-one. It's, 'Were going to do this together. We're going to be in that outfield together and we're going to do big things.'
"We want to help this team and this city and go back [to the World Series]."