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Naquin's value rises with success against lefties

Special to MLB.com

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Tyler Naquin got a rare start against a southpaw with the Royals' Jason Vargas on the mound Saturday.

"It's a chance to get some at-bats," Naquin said before the Indians' 7-6 win over the Royals. "Especially it being a lefty. I like that. You just got to stay on that thing. Sometimes against righties you like to get big, but on lefties you like to keep that vision to the middle. Keep it simple."

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Tyler Naquin got a rare start against a southpaw with the Royals' Jason Vargas on the mound Saturday.

"It's a chance to get some at-bats," Naquin said before the Indians' 7-6 win over the Royals. "Especially it being a lefty. I like that. You just got to stay on that thing. Sometimes against righties you like to get big, but on lefties you like to keep that vision to the middle. Keep it simple."

In his first at-bat Saturday as the DH, Naquin drilled a Vargas offering through the infield for a one-out single to right. It's still early March, but in a handful of at-bats against left-handers this spring, Naquin is showing improvement from his 2016 rookie campaign, when he hit .301 (87-for-289) with 14 homers and 36 RBIs against right-handers and .250 (8-for-32) with no homers and seven RBIs against lefties. Naquin is tearing up the Cactus League hitting .556 through Saturday's play, including a 7-for-13 stretch against righties with three doubles and a homer, and 3-for-5 with a double against left-handers. He is 8-for-9 in his last four games.

Video: LAA@CLE: Naquin smashes go-ahead homer to right

"I hope [he handles lefties eventually]," manager Terry Francona said. "I'd love to just turn the keys over to him, because he's got so many qualities that you admire."

Naquin seized the opportunity to work on being an everyday center fielder and take away any temptation Francona would have to mix and match with him. In 2016, Lonnie Chisenhall led with 99 starts in right, while Naquin made 90 in center and infielder Jose Ramirez led left fielders with 47 starts while filling in for the injured Michael Brantley before playing the rest of the season at third base.

Video: Francona provides update on Brantley's health 

"When Brantley's healthy, you just put him in there in left," Francona said. "If he's not healthy, you probably don't replace him with one guy. We've been kind of mixing and matching in center and right a little bit. Now all of a sudden if you do that in left, that can kind of play a little havoc with your roster."

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With Brantley yet to play in Cactus League games as he works his way back from his August biceps surgery, Naquin has the opportunity to provide some stability in the outfield.

"He wants to win -- a lot," Francona said. "He's got a way about him. I think you can win with guys like that. He understands, 'Hey, when the ball's hit to center field, you got to be out.' Is he completely there yet? Maybe not. But he's not going to back off. And he'll keep working. And he's athletic enough, and he's got a good arm that's probably going to get better, and that's exciting."

If he can deliver on that kind of excitement with the ball in his hand -- and keep delivering against lefties with a bat in his hand -- he just might convince Francona to hand over the keys.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com and covered the Indians on Saturday.

Cleveland Indians, Tyler Naquin