Naquin nears a promotion, but still working to improve
At the Advanced-A level, many players realize the odds are agains them that they will ever make it to the major leagues, and even fewer will become superstars and among the most elite players at that level.
The Carolina Mudcats are lucky enough to have a few players this season that have the potential to reach that level, one of which is star center fielder Tyler Naquin. The 15th overall pick in the 2012 draft turned into a 2013 Carolina League All-Star this season, and this is just the beginning.
Mudcats manager David Wallace sees the potential Naquin has at becoming a big league star, and is very high on Naquin as a player for everything he brings to the team.
“Defensively, he is the most complete center fielder I have seen in the minor leagues," Wallace said. "There’s nothing he can’t do out there. It’s been fun to watch him run down those balls. Offensively, he’s made the necessary adjustments, which is a big thing for minor leaguers.”
The accolades have already begun to pile up for Naquin as he was selected to his first All-Star team earlier this season. Naquin, who went 2-for-5 and scored two runs in the game enjoyed the experience.
“It was an amazing experience," Naquin said. "While our ultimate goal is not to just play in an All-Star game, it is another thing you can put on your resume on the way to the big leagues."
Also playing in the game were teammates shortstop Francisco Lindor, first baseman Jerrud Sabourin, and starting pitcher Cody Anderson, and Naquin said he really enjoyed being able to play with teammates on a stage like the All-Star game.
“It was awesome," he said. "You’ve got Lindor, the best shortstop in the league, Cody who leads the league in strikeouts, and Sabourin who is up at the top in hitting. We all contributed in the game, and it was a blessing just getting to play in the game with my teammates and the other guys we play against every day.”
One of Naquin’s best attributes is his defensive abilities in center field. He has the range to be an elite center fielder defensively at the major league level. He seems to glide easily to every ball that is hit to the outfield that he thinks he has a chance to catch, whether that be in center field, or closer to right or left field.
“I look at it that I’ve got one job to do in center field, and that is to cover as much ground as I can," Naquin said. "It’s not really normal to have a strong arm, but it’s even more abnormal to have such a strong arm with pinpoint accuracy. But that’s my job when I make a throw. I shouldn’t even have to make a throw because I get to the ball quick so they won’t attempt to run on me. It’s a fun feeling when I’m able to throw a ball. Everybody wants to see me throw it, and that’s something I take pride in.”
Naquin is no slouch at the plate either as he leads the Carolina League in hits. The first player in the league to reach 100 hits this season, Naquin is often a catalyst for an exciting Mudcats offense.
“It’s a lot of fun to play in this offense, especially when you string hits together," he said. "When we’re able to do that, it really shows how much fun we have on this team because anybody can do anything at any moment."
When growing up, Naquin’s father cut broomsticks for him to use as a bat and would pitch stones to him to work on his hitting. Naquin, who grew up in Spring, Texas, says growing up in the country provided him with the opportunity to learn to hit this way.
“My best friend, brother or dad would flip me rocks or gumballs from sweet gum trees," he recalled. "I would just hit those, and even when they threw me a bad rock, it would help my hand eye coordination. We would do that all day, every other day after school for years and years.
Naquin also had an unorthodox way of learning how to throw.
“Where we lived, we had long streets," he noted. "My brother and dad would throw footballs off the front porch, or rocks in the horse pasture, all kinds of stuff. I can’t tell you how many times my mom had to tell me to put rocks and stuff down in the parking lots or not to throw rocks at cars. I was always throwing something. It’s really just something I’ve been blessed with.”
While Naquin is one of the premier hitters in the Carolina League, there is one glaring hole in his game at the plate: his discipline. Realizing he needs to work on this, Naquin is putting in the extra work to get better.
“When I start out with a great night, I need to realize my night is not over," Naquin said. "For instance, I could walk and get a couple of hits, but striking out in the next three at-bats is not in the game plan. Everything in life starts with discipline, including baseball. You have an approach and do the right thing, you’re chances to win are pretty good. I know I need to control it, and I’ve done better this second half, but I’m still working on it.”
Wallace agrees Naquin’s strike zone discipline needs work, but says it’s nothing he can’t fix over time.
“He has the tendency to go after balls out of the zone, but through experience and at bats, he can fix that," Wallace said. "We love his aggressiveness and we want him to keep that, but he just needs to get that under control, which he will.”
Fans must remember Naquin was drafted just one year ago and has already advanced to the Advanced-A level, making what he has done amazing to watch. Naquin still vividly remembers draft day.
“It was awesome getting drafted," he beamed. "Playing at Texas A&M was the best decision I ever made. We were playing in a regional the day before the draft, and lost, so I was able to just relax the next day. I had a couple of phone calls throughout the day, and I knew I had a good chance of going in the first round. It was an emotional roller coaster, and I was lucky enough to have family and friends with me. It was an emotional experience to hear my name called. I’m sure the only better feeling than that is when you get the call to say you’re playing in your first big league game.”
Mature beyond his years, Naquin gained this from his three seasons as the star of the Texas A&M Aggies. In his three seasons playing for the Aggies, Naquin won Big 12 Player of the Year his sophomore year and quickly became one of the premier players from the program.
Naquin had nothing but good things to say about the program and said he loved his time in College Station.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made from a baseball standpoint,” Naquin said. “The whole coaching staff there is special. I can’t really explain it unless you’ve been there. They feed you all the sunshine, and anybody can say that, but playing there, that is exactly what you get. It helped me become a better player, person and man.”
It was not a forgone conclusion that Naquin would ever go to Texas A&M after being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft. Naquin seriously considered signing with the Orioles, but the coaches from Texas A&M helped persuade him to take the path that eventually led him to the Cleveland Indians organization.
“Coach Rob Childress flew out to Arizona right after I’d been drafted," Naquin recalled. "We had a sit down meeting where he persuaded me to make my decision.”
Cleveland fans have Childress to thank for the player the organization has today.
Baseball runs through Naquin’s blood, as his father and brother were both baseball players as well. While his father stopped at the high school level, his brother played at the junior college level, and Naquin says his brother was probably better than he is.
“My dad played in high school, and my brother did as well," Naquin said. "My brother then went to some junior colleges to play. He’s very fast and athletic and can track down balls, probably better than I can to be honest. I’m probably the better hitter. He decided to go a different route, and now he’s a United States Marine, which I’m thankful for."
Baseball players are superstitious, and Naquin is no different. While not really having any rituals before at-bats, before the game every day, no matter the time, Naquin has to brush his teeth.
“I have a special way to brush my teeth, and no matter what time it is, I have to do it before the game," Naquin said. "I also have a gold chain I wear for every game for a special purpose, but that’s really about it. I’m not as bad as some guys, but I do have my ways.”
From a pasture in Spring, Texas to Big 12 Player of the Year at Texas A&M to the first round of the MLB draft, Naquin has had quite a journey. He has been lucky enough to be given chances others can only dream of, but he’s not taking that for granted.
“Everyone’s got a chance," Naquin said. "I’ve got mine and I’m running with it. My job is to get better and help the Indians win a World Series and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Zachary is a senior at NC State where he is majoring in communication-media, with minors in journalism and theatre. You can follow him on Twitter @RealZachFrancis.