Naquin earns spot on Indians' Opening Day roster

March 25th, 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A grin crept across Tyler Naquin's face as he thought back to his earliest baseball memories. He spoke of his dad and a few other fathers piecing together a makeshift league for their young sons, tossing down bases in a church pasture to begin teaching them the game.

When Naquin was old enough to sign up for an official Little League team, he was assigned to the Indians. Fate is a funny thing, and it led to Naquin's meeting on Friday morning with manager Terry Francona, who informed the young outielder that his first Opening Day assignment will be with the Indians.

Naquin called his parents and spoke with his brother. Tears were shed.

"I'm speechless, man," Naquin said. "This only happens one time, so I still really don't have any words. It's a really cool situation for me and my family -- the opportunity to be able to help out, to help the Indians win a championship, to be a part of something special."

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With Cleveland's outfield situation in a state of flux this spring, the Indians told the 24-year-old Naquin that he had a realistic shot at competing for a job. Heading into Friday's game against the D-backs, all Naquin had done was hit .447 with a 1.342 OPS in 15 Cactus League games while playing a strong center field. In the 7-5 loss to Arizona, Naquin singled in the first inning and launched a home run in the sixth that Statcast™ measured at 435 feet.

The morning meeting was a memorable conversation not only for Naquin, but also for Francona.

"That was one of the more touching ones for us," Francona said. "We've seen this kid come from two years ago, when in our one-on-one meetings he'd barely look at us, to growing into a man and accepting the challenge this spring. We've all seen what he's done with it. So to be able to tell him, and then see his reaction, it was hard not to be emotional."

All that is clear right now is that Naquin -- Cleveland's top pick in the 2012 Draft and rated by as the club's No. 9 prospect -- will be a part of the Tribe's outfield puzzle.

It looks doubtful that left fielder Michael Brantley (right shoulder surgery in November) will be ready in time for Opening Day, meaning outfielder Rajai Davis will likely see action in left and center. Naquin, who has hit right-handed pitching well in his Minor League career, can patrol center at least as a platoon option. Lonnie Chisenhall projects to be the right fielder, but the Indians are looking for someone to pair with him, too.

Others in the mix this spring include Joey Butler, Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill, Robbie Grossman and Shane Robinson. Utility man Jose Ramirez, while an infielder by trade, can also provide depth in the outfield, too. Abraham Almonte was in the plans for center field, but he received an 80-game suspension earlier this spring for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

Francona was not ready to discuss Naquin's potential role.

"I don't know the rest of our team, yet," Francona said. "So, we'll get to that."

Last season, Naquin split his time between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, hitting a combined .300 with seven home runs, 25 doubles and 27 RBIs in 84 games. He missed time in spring with a quad issue, dealt with a concussion in July and August and was shut down late in the year with hip soreness. The health woes convinced Naquin to take part in the team's offseason strength-and-conditioning camp.

The results of Naquin's work over the winter culminated in an impressive spring.

"He's going to break camp as a Major League player for the first time in his life," Francona said. "That's about as exciting as it gets. And I think, while we all recognize that he'll be nervous, and have maybe some anxiety, he certainly won't be scared. We like that about him."