By Joe Scalzo
The most visible player on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ roster carries an invisible target on his back that reads, “$1.75 million.”
His name is Tyler Naquin and that’s the size of the contract he signed on Friday after getting picked by the Indians with the 15th pick of the first round earlier this month.
He’s never been to Ohio, he hasn’t played center field since high school and when you look at his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame, you wonder whether the Indians should have him walking around with a IV bag filled with protein shakes.
But he can hit — Baseball America called him the best pure hitter in the draft — and he’s got the kind of arm that’s more common in right field (where he played in college in order to shut down opposing runners) than center (where he’ll play in the minors).
“I saw in the scouting report, they [the Indians] said he’s got the best throwing arm and he’s the best hitter [in the draft],” said Scrappers manager Ted Kubiak. “That’s pretty glowing.
“Let’s hope that’s right.”
That’s a lot to live up to, but when Naquin was asked about meeting the lofty expectations, he shrugged and said, “I just have to be myself. Don’t try to do too much. Don’t try to hit a lot of home runs and stuff. I believe home runs and power are gonna come.
“I just have to play like myself every single day and let it work out, let it happen.”
Naquin, who turned 21 in April, batted .380 for Texas A&M as a junior with 18 doubles, six triples, three homers and 49 RBIs in 61 games. He led all NCAA Division I batters in hits as a sophomore with 104 and led the Big 12 with a .381 average that season, earning conference player of the year honors.
He’s originally from Spring, Texas, which is 30 minutes north of Houston and has played with or against three other Scrappers: infielder Evan Frazar and pitchers Louis Head and James Stokes.
“I’ve known Tyler since I was about 13; we played on the Texas Wildcats together,” said Frazar, a Houston native. “It’s good to see him. What are the chances one of your teammates from when you’re 13-14-15 years old will be on the same pro team?
“That’s pretty cool.”
Naquin likes country music and steak — “Typical Texan,” he said — and honed his swing by hitting rocks with a broomstick into Spring Creek, a river in Texas. (“I still try to do it when I get a shot,” he said.) His favorite major leaguer is Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (“He plays fast, shows pop and throws the ball well,” he said) and he said he’d rather hit with a wooden bat than the BBCOR bat they use in college.
“It’s got a smaller sweet spot, but it has a little more pop,” he said.
Naquin seemed friendly and comfortable in interviews — “He’ll fit in real good with us,” Frazar said — but Kubiak knows he’ll be challenged both by his new position and his draft history.
“Anytime you move a guy from one position to another, it’s always a transition,” Kubiak said. “And you’ve got your No. 1 guy coming here, he’s under pressure because of that.
“I’ve seen it happen in the past. He’ll be trying to do things maybe he shouldn’t be trying to do. It’ll take him awhile to calm down, I’m sure.”
Naquin, though, said he’s not worried about the transition and he’ll continue to play the blue-collar style of baseball he learned at Texas A&M.
“Playing hard got me all the way up through Texas A&M and hopefully that will carry on through my career,” he said. “Like I said, I’m gonna be myself. Being myself my entire life got me into the first round.
“I’m glad to get it started. When they [the Indians] want to put that much money in you and give you an opportunity of a lifetime to use your God-given ability, you go out and play and try to work your way up as fast as you can.”