WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was a drive worth staring at — even if the wind pushed out to left field, even if Michael A. Taylor didn’t watch it himself, even if the pitcher was Washington Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar and it was a batting practice home run that didn’t actually count.
“Whoa,” said one fan, looking through a black chain-linked fence, tracking the ball as it arced, up and up some more, against the light-blue sky.
“I think that’s going 275 miles per hour,” suggested a young kid as it sailed well over the left field wall.
“Did that hit the roof?” asked Nationals outfielder Andrew Stevenson, squinting, waiting for his next turn in the batter’s box. “Man, that hit the roof.”
“The wind helped a lot with that one,” Taylor said with a laugh, as if it wouldn’t still take a lot of strength to lift a ball 30 feet beyond the fence and onto the roof covering the Nationals’ batting cages. “We’ll see if I can do that another day.”
A trying end to summer turned into an offseason of tinkering and now Taylor is here, back at spring training, with another chance to prove himself in a crowded outfield. Manager Dave Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo have stressed that there’s an open competition in center field, with Taylor going against 21-year-old Victor Robles. Taylor is used to this, often just outside looking in, always trying to earn more at-bats and more starts.
That effort fell limp toward the end of last season, as he hit .122 in August and .200 in just 15 at-bats in September as Robles and Bryce Harper clogged his way onto the field. So he instead started his winter work early, working with hitting coach Kevin Long, using his time out of the lineup to inch back in. He then took his swing tweaks to the Dominican Republic for winter ball, but a hip flexor and right oblique strain ended his time there before long. He has been full-go during full-squad workouts and, though he is monitoring the injury, is ready to translate changes against live pitching.
Taylor will start in center field for the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener against the Houston Astros on Saturday. On Thursday, he got a head start.
“The power is going to be there. He’s just a strong kid,” said Martinez, who watched from behind Taylor as Taylor launched balls way out of the field. “For me it’s just getting him to put the ball in play. That’s the key for him. It’s just making contact, put the ball in play and use all his tools.”
Taylor’s swing was too long in the final months of 2018, and that especially showed against fastballs. Taylor struck out 17 times in 43 plate appearances in August and six times in 16 plate appearances in September. That led Long to take him aside for extra work outside normal game preparation, and the pair looked to shorten Taylor’s swing by simplifying it. They eliminated his stride. They cut steps out of his swing and, as Martinez observed, Taylor better understood that he could generate power naturally.
Long and Taylor met twice during the offseason, once in Arizona and another time in Florida, to further smooth out Taylor’s mechanics. Taylor later decided that winter ball was a good idea, even if most established 27-year-olds don’t head that far south for the winter. He noticed a difference at the plate in just a small handful of at-bats there, even finding himself ahead of some fastballs. He missed that feeling. It was more familiar when he hit 19 home runs with a .271 average in 2017.
“The biggest adjustment is the timing,” Taylor said. “When you have A, B, C and D you need to do before you’re ready to hit, and then you bring it down to just A and B, it gives you a lot more time.'
Now Taylor is looking to solidify his role for the coming season, whether it be as a full-time center fielder, a fourth option getting regular starts or a reserve who mostly pinch-hits or enters as a late-game defensive substitute. His glove and arm are useful for Martinez. So is his speed. Taylor hasn’t had discussions with Martinez or Rizzo about what’s ahead, but his bat will have to again catch up to his other tools if he wants back in the lineup.
And even if Robles wins the job, it is likely that Taylor plays often so Robles isn’t taxed with a heavy workload in his first full season. Taylor will be important to an outfield that, without Harper, has 20-year-old Juan Soto in left and veteran Adam Eaton in right.
A few pitches after Taylor hit the roof of the batting cages Thursday, he powered a ball to left-center that bounced off the top of another building. This one wasn’t quite as far but still drew some ooohs from those around home plate. Martinez kept his eyes on Taylor’s compact swing. Taylor ripped two line drives into the gap before laughing with Stevenson, who pointed to where each home run landed. It was just before noon on Feb. 21, still more than a month from Opening Day, just another round of batting practice that did not indicate what Taylor will be once an opponent takes the mound and the stakes raise.
But it still counted for something.
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