A harmless bloop to right-center field became the least harmless ball-in-play of the season for the 2021 Cleveland Indians. On a cloudy June afternoon in Minnesota, Twins second baseman Jorge Polanco hit a little flare that looked destined to be the second out of the 4th inning. Cleveland second baseman Ernie Clement and right-fielder Josh Naylor converged on the baseball, and ultimately converged on each other.
Clement, with his back to home plate, was in a sprint to try to make an over the shoulder catch. Naylor came charging in from deeper in the outfield. Ever the hard-nosed, defensive-minded player that Clement is, he never appeared to take his eye away from the play, getting further and further from the infield dirt where he originated. Clement doesn’t see the calamity that’s coming. Naylor only sees it at the very last moment himself, peaking downward at Clement. A split second before their inevitable collision, Naylor tried to sway his body to the left in an effort to avoid a direct hit.
Such a move on Naylor’s part is the only way that physics allows what happens next. Clement is listed at 6 foot and 170 pounds while Naylor is listed at 5 foot 11 and 250 pounds, and while neither Indian would secure the catch, its Clement who would somehow remain on his feet (and ultimately retrieve the ball). Meanwhile, Naylor’s attempt to avoid catastrophe sends his body into a spiral. He leaves his feet and spins in the air, the closest you will get to seeing a man of his stature looking like a figure skater. Unfortunately, the way he sticks his landing proves tragic.
Upon coming down, Naylor’s right leg plants into the ground bent backwards directly behind him. The pain is immediate. Crawling and flailing from the outfield grass, Naylor literally can not hold still because of the shock and pain. Not only is his day over, but his season is over. Naylor suffered multiple breaks to both his leg and ankle as well as torn ligaments in the same appendage. He would have surgery at the beginning of July, setting his recovery timetable as a Spring Training return being the best case scenario.
And while the beginning of Spring Training may have been delayed by MLB’s lockout, Naylor’s return is right on schedule (despite not being able to use team facilities said lockout). Though player’s don’t officially report to Arizona until Sunday, Naylor was at the Guardians facility in Goodyear on Saturday taking batting practice. Among his swings was an absolute moonshot of a home run that landed a clear 30 feet beyond the outfield fence, per MLB.com’s Mandy Bell.
First round of BP for Josh Naylor includes one hit off the top of the wall and one that cleared the left-center fence by at least 30 feet.
Heard from Daniel Johnson in the background: “Oh, I thought he was gonna start off slow.” pic.twitter.com/hcalTHr5n5
— Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02) March 12, 2022
And while batting practice home runs before Spring Training even officially starts can only mean so much, the Guardians could absolutely use a more potent bat from Naylor in 2022. The stocky left-hander, in the Majors for his potential at the plate, was off to an abysmal start in 2021 with an On Base Percentage of just .290 in April. He didn’t hit his first homer in 2021 until the 3rd of May, but started to produce more effectively as the second month of the season progressed. He slashed a much more respectable .260/.317/.438 over the course of that month, at a time when the year of the no-hitter was very much in full effect. While June saw him sputter some (back to a .290 OBP, for instance) Naylor was still at least looking like someone who could hold his own in the Big Leagues, putting up good at bats.
With the Guardians lacking on corner outfield talent coming into 2022, someone of Naylor’s ilk is a benefit. As presently constructed, he has the potential to play early and often for Cleveland if he is ready. The lack of other competent options make him an immediate favorite to be an every day player.
That’s not to say that all is resolved, however. Naylor is truly a curious case. Beyond the kind of “by default” nature that his inclusion in the every day lineup could have, the Canadian prospect has never been the most fleet of foot or strong in the field, even before a significant leg injury put him out of commission for nine months. For him to now be carrying his 250 pound body around on a surgically repaired leg could be a huge question mark. With Franmil Reyes already occupying the designated hitter role and another promising left-handed bat in Bobby Bradley likely covering first base in 2022, Naylor will likely need to play the outfield given the team’s lack of offensive talent. He will only turn 25 during the course of the 2022 season (making recovery more likely), but its fair to say he would stand to be a defensive liability.
On the other hand, can the Guardians really afford to not pursue Naylor’s offensive contribution on a nightly basis due to a potential lack of mobility? With the lack of offensive outfield talent that they currently have? A combination of mostly Eddie Rosario (pre post-season heroics for the Braves), Harold Ramirez (pre removal from the roster) and Oscar Mercado (post his one good offensive season in the Majors, but still on the roster now) provided Cleveland with the third worst OPS for left-fielders in all of baseball in 2021 (.644). Perhaps surprisingly, right-field actually fared much better (.760), finishing 15th . Who played more games in right-field than any other Indian in 2021? You guessed it. Josh Naylor.
However, we’ve been here before with Cleveland’s ownership and front office. They are often way too comfortable pointing at the return of an injured player and claiming that their return is an upgrade to the roster (see multiple times with Michael Brantley over the past decade, for instance). A bill of clean health for Naylor is NOT an excuse to not pursue the improvement of the Guardians roster, especially its outfield. Several viable options such as Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto, Tommy Pham and (my personal favorite) Jorge Soler still exist.
More talent might even help Naylor slot into the role that suits him best. Naylor has a little more than a full-season’s worth of plate appearances over the course of his 3 (partial) season Major League career. Those seasons contain a slash line of .250/.306/.389 and OPS+ of only 87 that suggests a lack of pop. Still, he is a slightly above average hitter (108 OPS+) against righties over the course of his short Major League career. Even more promising, he slashed a much more impressive .287/.331/.473 with an OPS+ of 120 against right-handed pitching in 2021, showing a trend in the right direction. Naylor’s best role might be as the bigger end of a platoon situation in the outfield (I originally thought along with Ramirez before his dismissal), but such an arrangement would require the Guardians have a better option against lefties. Right now they don’t really have that… it also requires Naylor to be able to patrol the outfield. Maybe that’s more plausible if he shares time and is replaced in games late defensively. But these stipulations require additional talent on the roster.
So yes, assuming health, Naylor should absolutely be a part of the Guardians present and future. But the good news of his recovery cannot be the only good news that Guardians fans receive within what is left of this winter. For their own success as well as Naylor’s, they need to add more. They need to help him by helping themselves.