Thursday was the first day of arbitration hearings — with Taylor going against the Nationals, and shortstop Carlos Correa clashing with the Houston Astros — and there are 13 more expected across the next two weeks. One of those will be for Nationals reliever Kyle Barraclough, who is asking for $2 million while the Nationals are offering $1.725 million. Washington acquired Barraclough in an October trade, sending $1 million of international slot money to the Miami Marlins, and the 28-year-old figures to be a roving piece in the Nationals’ bullpen this season.
Taylor’s role is similarly undefined, which is likely why he ended up in an arbitration case with the Nationals. If $250,000 seems like a negligible amount to go to a hearing over — considering the Nationals’ 2019 payroll is projected to be just under $200 million — it’s because it is. That could be a signal of discontent between a player and the organization, as the Nationals typically prefer to avoid arbitration hearings. The player’s representation argues why he is worth a certain salary. The team counters and, in doing so, has to point out and closely examine a player’s flaws while that player sits in the room. There is a reason these hearings are known to strain relationships. The last time the Nationals went to an arbitration hearing was with reliever Jerry Blevins in February 2015. Blevins won and was traded before the season began.
Now, with the start of spring training less than two weeks away, Taylor’s salary is clear but his future with the Nationals is not. He struggled at the plate at the end of last season, hitting .122 in August and .200 in September. He also lost opportunities once 21-year-old star prospect Victor Robles joined the team in September, and was the odd man out in an outfield of Juan Soto, Robles, Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper. And while Harper returning cannot be counted out quite yet, which would surely bury Taylor on the bench, it still seems likely that the team’s regular Harper-less lineup would put Soto in left, Robles in center and Eaton in right.
But that wouldn’t necessarily squeeze Taylor out of the equation. Robles only has two months of major league service time and it doesn’t seem like the Nationals want to tax him with a full-time role right away. At the winter meetings in early December, Manager Dave Martinez even mentioned that he’d like to see Taylor compete for the starting spot in spring training. Of course, it bodes well for the Nationals if Taylor is working toward that whether it is feasibly in his reach. He hit 19 home runs with a .271 average in 118 games two seasons ago, and if he can rediscover his swing the Nationals would have a very deep outfield and, potentially, a valuable trade piece. Taylor’s defense in center, often touted by coaches and teammates as Gold Glove-caliber, also makes him a logical and effective late-game replacement for Eaton.
“His defense is the best, by far, in baseball. Nobody plays center field like him,” Martinez said at the winter meetings. “So if we can get him to put the ball in play, he’ll be in good shape.”
There are many ways he can help the Nationals, this coming season and beyond, and it starts with him solving his offensive struggles. He played winter ball in the Dominican Republic in December, which is rare for an established major leaguer in his mid-to-late 20s, and worked with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long this offseason. And now, with his arbitration case in the past, he can focus on parlaying all of that into better results. Both he and the team could really use them.