Naquin rises quickly to Rookie of Year finalist

Indians CF had most consistent season of all AL first-year players

Naquin rises quickly to Rookie of Year finalist

CLEVELAND -- In his meeting with manager Terry Francona at the start of Spring Training, Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin was told he had a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster. Naquin seized the opportunity and turned in a campaign that now has him in the running for some end-of-season hardware.

Naquin is in the mix for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, along with Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer. While Sanchez and Fulmer appear to be the favorites, Naquin has a case based on the fact that he spent the most time in the Major Leagues of the three finalists. The winner will be announced in a 6 p.m. ET special on Monday on MLB Network.

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"We put him in a challenging spot," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said at the end of the season. "It's pretty rare -- at least in our experience -- for a player who had no Major League experience [to be] an everyday player who made the team out of Spring Training."

The cases for Sanchez and Fulmer are compelling.

Sanchez had only 229 plate appearances in 53 games for the Yankees, but the catcher did a season's worth of damage. Among the 172 rookies in baseball history to belt at least 20 home runs, Sanchez did so in the fewest games and plate appearances. He collected 32 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs and a 1.032 OPS in helping New York remain in the postseason chase into the final month.

For Detroit, Fulmer did not join the rotation until late April, but he went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 159 innings. The right-hander fell three innings shy of qualifying for the ERA race, in which he would have ended third in the AL with his season-end mark. Fulmer teamed with Detroit ace Justin Verlander to keep the Tigers' starting staff respectable as the team attempted to keep pace with the AL Central champion Indians.

Naquin played a big role for the Tribe, which not only won the division but also went on to capture a pennant.

In 116 games, Naquin turned in a .296/.372/.517 slash line in 365 plate appearances. The center fielder ranked second among AL rookie hitters in WAR (2.5 per FanGraphs) and weighted Runs Created Plus (135), while finishing third in the AL rookie class in games, runs scored (52), on-base percentage and slugging percentage. With the exception of two brief stints at Triple-A because of a roster crunch, Naquin was a regular part of the Indians' order.

"He battled some adversity early on," Chernoff said, "with some ups and downs and the uncertainty of our roster at that time. The way he went down, worked really hard when he was down in the Minor Leagues, came back and hit the ground running when he came back, was really exceptional to see."

All 14 of Naquin's home runs came between June and August, during which he posted a .988 OPS for the Indians. He had a four-RBI game on June 19, a two-homer showing with six RBIs on June 20 and then provided the signature moment of Cleveland's season on Aug. 19. On that night against Toronto, Naquin delivered a walk-off, inside-the-park home run -- a feat that had not been accomplished by a Tribe hitter since 1916.

Along the way, Francona used Naquin mostly against right-handed pitching. When the season ended, Naquin compiled 325 plate appearances against righties, compared to 40 against left-handers. That was a way to not only protect Naquin in his first taste of the big leagues but to also field the best lineup.

"One of the things Tito does so well is he's thinking about, 'How do I put a player in the position to be successful?'" Chernoff said. "We felt and Tito thought, 'Let's find those opportunities for Tyler to transition to the Major Leagues that put him in the best position to succeed.' That happened to be against mostly right-handed pitchers. He faced a couple of lefties, but mostly righties.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that would be the same thing moving forward as Tyler continues to mature and develop."

Naquin, who was Cleveland's top pick in the 2012 Draft, finished with the most home runs by an Indians rookie since 2008, when Ben Francisco knocked 15. He matched a Cleveland rookie record with his six-RBI game against the Royals and became the first Tribe rookie since 1986 (Cory Snyder) to have two home runs and six RBIs in one game.

Among Indians rookies with at least 300 at-bats, Naquin's .372 OBP and .514 SLG were the best marks since 1956 (Rocky Colavito, .372/.531). Naquin's .886 OPS was also the best mark by a Tribe rookie since Colavito's .903 showing in that '56 season. The 126 OPS+ posted by Naquin was the highest by a Cleveland rookie since Joe Charboneau (129) in '80. Charboneau won the Rookie of the Year after that season.

"It's fun to see a homegrown player with that type of mentality join the team and contribute in the way he did," Chernoff said of Naquin. "He was one of our most productive offensive players for the year when you look at the statistics. As we reflect back on his year, he played a huge role on this team, established himself in many ways, and we look forward to him continuing to be a big part of this team."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.