GOODYEAR, Ariz. — It would be pretty easy for Tyler Naquin to resent Bradley Zimmer.
Three years ago, Naquin was the first-year sensation, finishing third in American League Rookie of the Year voting and looking as though he was taking the first step to a career in the majors.
Now, Zimmer, after a breakthrough rookie season, is in the same position, and it’s come at Naquin’s expense.
“Me and Bradley Zimmer, I don’t hang out with many people, but I would claim that Bradley Zimmer is one of my best friends already in life,” Naquin said. “There is nothing (controversial) there. Me and that dude hang out every day in fact after spring training (camp). We’re both pulling for each other. We want to do it together. There’s no one-on-one. It’s, ‘We’re going to do this together, we’re going to be in that outfield together and we’re going to do big things.’”
Zimmer, 25, was all about doing big things last year, spending the last four and a half months in the majors — starting in center field against right-handed pitching — and hitting .241 with eight homers and 39 RBIs in 101 games.
He was second among American League rookies with 18 stolen bases and eight outfield assists.
“It’s the highest level,” Zimmer said. “The game is quicker. Everything is a little bit faster. You have to be that much sharper. It was a challenge. I had a blast last year and had a lot of good things going on.
“As a team, we had a great year. We came up a little short at the end, but I think we’re all gonna be that much more fired up to get after it this year and put ourselves back in the position we were in at the end of the season last year.”
Meanwhile, Naquin, 26, headed in a different direction. He started to show flaws at the plate and in the field at the end of 2016, then dealt with injuries during a down season spent mostly in the minors.
“You let the game speed up a little bit and you try to do too much, you try to press it, you try to force it and you’re not the player that you are,” said Naquin, who played in only 19 games for Cleveland, batting .216 with two doubles and an RBI. “You’ve got to go out and play your game. Everybody brings something different. It’s just knowing your role, slowing the game down and just being myself.
“Just mainly take a step back. Guys like to give me a little junk that I’m a little head case sometimes because stuff will speed up on me, man. I’m sporadic, maybe a little A.D.D. in there. You just gotta take a step back, man, and enjoy it, instead of speeding up and all this and that and this, ‘It’s going bad.’ Think about all the things that are going good. It’s just part of the game and part of the process. I’m just happy to be healthy and be in this position.”
Like his buddy Naquin, Zimmer tasted disappointment as well, suffering a season-ending left hand injury that prohibited him from participating in the ALDS.
After healing from offseason surgery, Zimmer arrived at camp healthy and focused on raising the bar this year. He is expected to open this season as the primary center fielder, getting more at-bats against left-handers.
“My main thing was just my health at first, just getting back to where I can do everything I do without even thinking about my hand,” Zimmer said. “Once I was good with that it was just going about my usual business — defense, hitting, baserunning. But I think the biggest thing for me this year is going to be consistency at the plate. I’ve put in a lot of work this offseason and I’ve continued to work here, so just continuing to have that consistency throughout the season is going to be huge for me.”
Zimmer’s roster spot is secure, but Naquin is a long shot to break camp with the team as an extra outfielder. The competition includes proven veterans Rajai Davis and Melvin Upton Jr.
“I believe that the work that I put in and the talent level and stuff, as long as I keep my head straight ahead of me and not worry about other stuff, that I’ll be in the lineup and that I’ll be able to help us win,” Naquin said. “I’ve come a long since two years ago. I’ve dealt with some injuries and matured a little bit. That’ll definitely help you. It’s part of the process.
“I think you just take care of your business and don’t worry about all that, whatever is going on, then you find yourself where you want to be. As long as you believe in yourself, you’ve got to be healthy and work hard and it will happen.”