Whatever Michael A. Taylor’s become, from the start of this offseason to when the Washington Nationals gather for spring training in mid-February, will have a major bearing on the team’s depth and the future of its evolving outfield.
If Taylor has rebounded, and can even hint at the player who hit 19 home runs in 2017, the Nationals will have a solid fourth outfielder who can push Victor Robles for starts. If he hasn’t, and his offensive struggles trickle into another year, Washington will soon have to make critical decisions about his future with the franchise. All the Nationals know at this point is this: What Taylor did at the plate last August and September is not it. And an outfield without Bryce Harper would need him to be much better.
“If he figures out the contact portion of it a little bit better, you are talking about a guy that could have five tools,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this month. “He’s had flashes of it in the past and he just needs to be more consistent in his approach at the plate, because the kid’s a really good player.”
Everyone seems to be rooting for Taylor, save the Internet trolls who have turned each passing strikeout into a reason to trade him or send him down or, quite simply, do anything but put him in another lineup. The Nationals' interests are twofold, since a revived Taylor is both good for short-term success and a more valuable potential trade chip down the line. Fans keep hoping that Taylor, now 27, can again grab their hearts as he did in 2015 and 2017 and with all the flashes of excitement in between. Teammates and coaches want Taylor, once filled with promise, to figure it out for his own sake before anyone else’s.
But first has to come more contact, which directly connects to changes to his stance and swing, which, more importantly, hinges on Taylor’s ability to sear those changes into his routine. He worked with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long earlier in this offseason. He then took his new mechanics to winter league in the Dominican Republic in December, a rare stop for a player with more than three full major league seasons. And next comes the hardest part, staying on track, sustaining any momentum gained and, at the most basic level, hitting the ball.
“It’s the muscle memory, you’ve trained and done things one way for a lot of years, and you’re basically retraining how you go about it,” Long said of Taylor’s swing tweaks in early December. “So it’s going to be a bit of a process.”
While Long didn’t delve into the new muscle memory Taylor has to learn, Taylor needs to shorten his swing to increase contact. This past August, Taylor hit .122 and struck out 17 times in 43 plate appearances. In September, with his opportunities shaved down by Robles’s arrival, Taylor hit .200 and struck out six times in 16 plate appearances. Toward the end of the season, most of his at-bats came as a pinch-hitter and he had just eight combined hits in the last two months. That was a sharp drop off from his 22 hits in April and March, 17 in May, 22 in June and 11 in July.
Something changed, and now something has to change again. Whether those changes will allow Taylor to still hit for power is another element of the equation.
“His raw power is there and he just needs to put the bat on the ball more often and the power numbers will be there,” Rizzo said. “You’re talking about a guy who has extreme power to the opposite field and he can hit it as far as anybody, so power has never held him back and it’s not anything that we worry about.”
His reemergence could help the Nationals in a number of ways. No matter what, Taylor provides a Gold Glove-caliber glove in the outfield and could replace Adam Eaton for late-inning defensive assurance. But if Taylor can rediscover his bat, and if Harper does not return, he could compete with the 21-year-old Robles to be the Nationals' everyday center fielder. Manager Dave Martinez suggested as much at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, saying, “Hopefully those two will fight for the job.”
This was after Martinez said, yet again, “I’m a big Michael Taylor fan. I really am.” Then he jumped into an assessment that’s become common since Martinez has led the team.
“His defense is the best, by far, in baseball. Nobody plays center field like him,” the manager added. “So if we can get him to put the ball in play, he’ll be in good shape.”
Right now, Martinez is in love with the player Michael A. Taylor was and could be. Many others are clinging to that. And how long it lasts depends on what Taylor does next.