MIAMI — Victor Robles started in center field for the Washington Nationals on Monday night at Marlins Park, getting a rare chance against a righty and giving Adam Eaton back-to-back days off. Nights like this, or days like Sunday, when the Nationals faced a left-handed starter, used to be the moments Michael A. Taylor planned around. Those were the days he got his chances, limited though they might be. But now, with top prospect Robles around for September — and, perhaps, for good — Taylor does not get those chances anymore. He has not started a game since August 29. He has taken six at-bats this month.
“He’s always prepared. He’s always ready. Whatever we ask him to do, he’s ready for it,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I think he gets it. I talked to him before and told him I don’t want him to think he’s forgotten, because he’s not. We don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward. He’s still a big part of our plans.”
Taylor is quiet by nature, so any increased reticence would be hard to detect. He still employs subtle sarcasm, issues sudden quips to teammates and smiles when he says hello. He takes ground balls at shortstop during batting practice, lively and jovial, as if he really did belong there. But something about him is more subdued, his presence diminished by the fact that he hardly ever plays anymore. Once the center fielder of the Nationals future, a Gold Glove finalist in 2017, he has all but disappeared.
But in keeping with his career-long adherence to the company line and his consistent ability to defer on questions that might inspire even an ounce of selfishness, Taylor was determinedly diplomatic about his role.
“I feel like I’m getting really good work in right now in the cage with [hitting coach Kevin Long] and trying to make the most of the time we get out on the field,” Taylor said. “… The rain’s been tough, but I’m trying to continue to shag and hone my skills.”
As they always have, the Nationals want Taylor to decrease his strikeout numbers, Martinez said. The work in the cage is geared toward shortening the 27-year-old’s swing, something on which he has been focused for years. Last season was his best in the majors. He hit .271 with an .806 OPS in 118 games and finished as a runner-up for the National League Gold Glove in center field, a competitive position. He exploded in the playoffs with memorable home runs that seemed to put his prolific power — one of the tools that has tantalized the Nationals for years — on the national radar. Coming into this season, he seemed likely to be the first man up if the Nationals suffered an outfield injury, and when Eaton went down, he was.
But he struggled in April (.185 batting average) and May (.222) before catching fire with a .349 average in June. By that time, Eaton was ready to return. Just as Taylor was finding his rhythm, he lost the everyday at-bats that had helped him cultivate it. His average dropped to around .256 in July. Then Eaton returned to duty and Juan Soto made himself indispensable, and Taylor sat for most of August. Entering Monday night’s game against the Marlins, he did not have a hit since August 15 — more than a month, a period of just 21 at-bats.
Asked if he was growing frustrated, Taylor smiled. He did not let down the calculated guard, but could not maintain a totally straight face, either.
“Individually, this season didn’t go how I thought it would, but that doesn’t make it a bad season,” Taylor said. “I feel like I learned a lot. I feel like I grew a lot as a person and player, and I’ve seen a lot of things in the way things work and am better for it.”
Taylor won’t let frustration scuttle his future nor say anything to indicate he thinks he deserves more opportunities. It probably wouldn’t help. With Soto established, Bryce Harper chasing numbers before free agency and Adam Eaton healthy again, Taylor would only get platoon duty again, anyway. But with the newest center fielder of the future, Robles, back in the big leagues for the rest of the season, Taylor likely won’t get those chances, either. The Nationals need to see what Robles can do before they make big decisions about their outfield this offseason. Taylor is struggling more than the others, so despite his elite defense, he is the most natural odd-man-out.
Regardless of whether Harper re-signs with the Nationals, Taylor might end up a spare part anyway. If Harper does return, the Nationals will already have one-too-many outfielders — Soto, Robles, Eaton, and Harper. If he doesn’t, Soto, Robles, and Eaton can coalesce into a cheap and athletic outfield. Taylor could serve as a fourth outfielder to spell Eaton, but his chances to secure a starting job seem to have come and gone. Then again, he has been the odd-man-out before when injuries ultimately created room.
For now, Taylor is relegated to working in the cage, late pinch-hit duties and diplomatic answers. The next generation of Nationals outfielders has arrived, and his place in the outfield of the future is no longer clear.
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