This story has been updated.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Michael A. Taylor sprained his left knee and left hip, an MRI exam revealed Friday, and Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said he expects the outfielder to “miss a significant amount of time.”
Taylor, 27, exited Thursday’s spring training game against the Minnesota Twins after making a diving catch in the second inning. He stayed in for one more hitter before he tried to jog to the dugout. The pain forced him to slow to a walk, and the MRI didn’t bring good news.
“It stinks; it’s a little bit more than we were hoping for,” Martinez said Friday after the Nationals’ 11-3 win over the New York Mets. “But he’s going to rehab, and as soon as we get him back, we get him back.”
Before the injury, Taylor was competing with Victor Robles to be the Nationals’ everyday center fielder. Taylor was hitting well, with a .360 batting average in 25 at-bats, and had debuted a new swing that cut his stride. Now Washington needs to prepare to start the season without him, presumably putting Robles in a full-time role and testing the Nationals’ depth.
Matt Adams, a slugging first baseman, has 34 career appearances in left field and made another Friday. That kind of role for Adams had seemed unnecessary for a team with 20-year-old left fielder Juan Soto, the defensively versatile Robles, the even more defensively versatile Taylor and Howie Kendrick, a veteran utility man who can play the corners. But the Nationals’ outfield depth has been sapped in recent weeks, with Taylor set to miss the foreseeable future and Kendrick still working back from a left hamstring strain.
Kendrick remains day-to-day and fielded groundballs Thursday. He is not yet running at full speed, and Martinez predicted March 8 that the 35-year-old would not sprint for another 10 to 12 days. So the Nationals are beginning to test just how many outfield options they have.
“We’re going to play Adams in left. [Wilmer] Difo is going to play outfield in the coming days because, you’re correct, there’s no outfield depth,” Martinez said Friday morning, before he knew the results of Taylor’s MRI. “Adams, as you know, he can play left field, and Difo is going to play center field, left field, both in the next few days, and I think he can do it.”
While Martinez kicks around the possibilities, he knows this: The Nationals need a fourth outfielder who can play center field. Among their starting outfielders — Soto in left, Robles in center and Adam Eaton in right — only Robles can be used in center, defensively the most challenging spot. Martinez expects Difo, typically an infielder, to get an opportunity in center Sunday. Martinez has used Adrian Sanchez, another utility player, in left field and likes his ability to play multiple positions. And the Nationals also have 24-year-old Andrew Stevenson, who can play all three outfield spots but probably wasn’t going to make the 25-man roster before these injuries hit. Now he might.
Even if Kendrick is healthy by Opening Day, he can’t be used in center, and Martinez will need more help there. Stevenson is a strong fielder but hasn’t shown the same upside at the plate. That’s also how Difo can be described, but his defensive skills are far less proven in the outfield. This could create a carousel of sorts, forcing players into unfamiliar roles while the Nationals wait for Kendrick to heal and Taylor to return. On Friday, Martinez was optimistic that Kendrick would be ready to start the season. He could not say the same for Taylor, who is expected to remain in Florida to rehab when the Nationals head north.
“I got thrown out there last year,” Adams said of how much preparation he would need to play left field during the season. “Just by doing the work with [Bob] Henley and footwork drills and just getting in batting practice and reading balls off the bat, that kind of stuff goes a long way.”
Injuries slammed the Nationals’ outfield in 2018: Eaton, Robles, Brian Goodwin, Rafael Bautista and Kendrick got hurt in the first two months of the season. Kendrick’s torn right Achilles’ tendon kept him out for most of the year and cleared Soto’s path to the big leagues. That was a positive that came out of an otherwise-bleak situation. But there is never a bright side in the moment, and Taylor’s sprains leave Washington searching for answers where there had been no questions.
Outside of a few bullpen spots, there were no true roster battles when the Nationals began spring training a month ago. That has changed, and they have less than two weeks to sort out their outfield issues.
“He’s a big part of our ballclub,” Martinez said of Taylor. “So I just hope that he recovers quickly and we can get him back out there as soon as possible.”