Into the Nationals clubhouse walked Michael Taylor, perhaps the Nationals’ best hope to solve their revolving-door center field situation. Taylor had come from accelerated minor league camp with four others, including Destin Hood, another bright prospect who could one day fill a corner outfield spot in Washington.
Nationals officials cannot stop raving about either player. Since shifting from shortstop to center field in fall 2010, Taylor has become one of the Nationals’ top prospects. Hood has trimmed his chiseled physique – if he and Bryce Harper switched bodies, you would barely notice. Both players have “off-the-charts makeup,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris. “They raise the bar within the whole camp.”
Taylor, 20, figures to start this season at Class A Potomac, while Hood will move up to Class AA Harrisburg. Both could reach the majors quickly. Pat Corrales, a roving minor league evaluator, said last year he thinks Taylor could play center field in the majors by 2013.
Taylor has come a long way since 2010, his first full minor league season, when he played shortstop and made 13 errors in 19 games. When Taylor reported to the instructional league that fall, the Nationals decided to move him to center field.
“His body type and his skill set were better suited for center field,” Harris said. “When you project a player, you look at the body type. He was a high-waisted guy. You don’t see many real high-waisted shortstops. We felt that physically, he has the potential to be a very imposing presence down the road.”
Taylor had grown up as a shortstop, and the position change caught him off guard. “It came as a surprise to me,” Taylor said. “After I got out there the next day, I was ready to go. I just want to play.”
Outfield coordinator Tony Tarasco began to make the transition with Taylor, a reserved kid with an unflagging maturity. (This morning, Taylor called a reporter he had just met, “Sir.”) Taylor’s attitude helped him make a rapid adjustment – Tarasco could work with Taylor on footwork, angles and fundamentals without worrying about his mental state.
“First off, his character and his work ethic are impeccable,” Tarasco said. “To get that at such a young age is a blessing to start. He had his day or two where he was upset, because he wanted to play shortstop. Then we got out there and started doing the work.
“The transition was surprisingly quick. It kind of opened him up as an athlete. It gave us an opportunity to see what kind of athlete he was. Shortly after he made the transition, he was making plays that, man, I was astounded by. Just amazing.”
One play gained legendary status among Nationals minor league officials. Not long after Taylor switched to center, the Nationals’ instructional league team playing Orlando. Taylor lined up shaded to right-center with two strikes on a right-handed batter, and the hitter tattooed a line drive to left-center. “It wasn’t a fly ball,” Tarrasco said. “It was a gap ball.”
Tarasco shifted his eyes to the corner outfielders to see if they were backing up the right bases – he thought the hit was a sure double, maybe a triple. When he looked up, Taylor had cut the ball off and made a running catch.
“Within 10 days, there were wows,” Harris said. “He made some plays instinctively that you don’t see from guys who have been playing the position for a long time.”
At the plate, Taylor hit .253/.310/.432 at Class A Hagerstown last year, but his season was more impressive than that. He overcame a horrendous start to put up solid numbers in the second half, changing his approach at the plate.
Today, Harris watched Taylor spray line drives and gapers during batting practice. “If you watched him a year ago, he was so passive in the box,” Harris said. “Now, he’s looking to do damage.”
The Nationals believe Taylor will continue his rapid improvement at the plate. Harris said he could add 20 pounds to his lanky frame. Also, they think he’ll improve partly because of his athletic ability and partly owing to his make-up.
“Part of playing the outfield is learning how to struggle at the bat and taking that out to the field,” Tarasco said. “He does it. You would never know he was struggling at the start of last year. He’s as flat-line as a dead person. He is the same guy, every single day.”