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Nationals' outfielders Steven Souza, Michael Taylor ready to compete for bench roles

Washington Nationals' prospects Steven Souza and Michael Taylor will be with the Nats in Spring Training competing for roles on the bench in 2015. Souza, Taylor, Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo talked to reporters at NatsFest.

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Steven Souza started his eighth season in the Washington Nationals' system at Triple-A Syracuse. The 25-year-old, 2007 3rd Round pick made his MLB debut in April, posted a .350/.432/.590 line with the Nationals' top affiliate, hit 25 doubles and 18 HRs over 96 games and 407 plate appearances with the Chiefs and hit two more home runs in 26 PAs with the Nats.

At the end of the year he was named the International League's Most Valuable Player and the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year for 2014.

"I don't want to say I'm content with it or happy. It was an awesome year," Souza said on Saturday.

"It was exciting, and I feel like I accomplished a lot of things that I wanted to do on the field, but I still feel like there's more that I can do and there is more to get better at and I'm just looking forward to this spring and the rest of this year and just showing that."

So what aspects of his game is Souza focused on this winter?

"There's some power I feel like that I haven't tapped into that me and Joe Dillon, the Triple-A hitting coach, worked on this year." -Steve Souza on what he can improve on for 2015

"Little things," he explained. "Like, there's some power I feel like that I haven't tapped into that me and Joe Dillon, the Triple-A hitting coach, worked on this year. Defensively, I know this sounds crazy, but I'd love to get [better] defensively -- assists and stuff like that -- trying to shut down the running game a little more, just little things like that, consistency at the big league level. Staying focused on what I need to do."

Michael Taylor, 23, started his 2014 campaign at Double-A Harrisburg, made a brief stop at Triple-A Syracuse and was then called up to make his MLB debut in mid-August.

The Nationals' 2009 6th Round pick put up a .304/.390/.526 line in the minors, hitting 17 doubles and 22 HRs in 98 games and 441 PAs with the Senators, three doubles, a triple and a home run in 52 PAs with the Chiefs and then three doubles and a home run in 43 PAs in the majors.

After two long years and a lot of baseball, Taylor decided to take some time off this winter.

"I think just playing two years in a row can be a lot," Taylor explained to reporters this weekend.

"I didn't have much of an offseason last year. I was kind of playing, sat for a month, and then right back at it. It wears on you to play that many games. I think I played over 200 games last year."

The young outfielder was asked if it was the most games he's ever played in a single year?

"Definitely," he said, but he was happy that he got some exposure at the major league level.

"He's ready. He's a big leaguer. He's proven everything that he can prove." - #Nats' Matt Williams on Steven Souza

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"I think it's all about being consistent at this level," Taylor said. "Everybody can play, it's just how often you can hit that spot or how often you can barrel up the ball."

With his rapid ascent last year, Taylor put himself into a position to compete for a spot on the major league roster in 2015, though he's not allowing himself to think about anything other than preparing for next season.

"I shut down my Twitter and all that stuff and don't frequent MLB Network and things like that," Taylor joked.

"The game is the same, it's a different stage, so you get hit with a couple of things that you don't see at the minor league level..." -Michael Taylor on differences between the minors and majors

"So it's nice to kind of get away from it a little bit and that stuff's out of my control so I focus on working out and getting ready."

Taylor didn't spend all that much time in the International League (AAA), but he said the adjustment to the big leagues was less about the play and more about everything else going on at the major league level, "... the atmosphere and things like that.

"It's definitely a jump," he said. "I don't think it's too big of an adjustment. I think the biggest adjustment is just trying to be comfortable. The game is the same, it's a different stage, so you get hit with a couple of things that you don't see at the minor league level and as soon as you can make that adjustment I think the on-field adjustment is actually a little easier."

Taylor's working this winter on getting more comfortable at the plate.

#Nats' outfielder Michael Taylor talked to reporters at #NatsFest this past weekend about competing for a bench role in 2015.

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"Cutting down on the strikeouts," he said. "Just being more consistent. Putting the bat on the ball I think is probably the thing that I can do to make the biggest impact on my game."

The things he's working on, he explained, are more mental than physical.

"I think it's more of a mindset adjustment," Taylor told reporters.

"I have a two-strike approach, just having a plan doesn't always work out, executing it is part of it, but the more at bats I get and the more comfortable I become with two strikes I think it should feel the same as with one strike or 0-0."

Souza, after eight years of minor league ball, is ready to take the next step.

"I feel like I have a really good foundation at this point and now it's just about getting the opportunities and being confident with it. Just trusting what I've done and staying with it."

So where do they fit in at the major league level with the Nationals in 2015? Are they going to be in competition for a role on the Nats' bench this spring?

"For Steven, he's ready. He's a big leaguer. He's proven everything he can prove. Michael could certainly take the next step..." -Matt Williams on Steven Souza and Michael Taylor

"They both have opportunity to get to spring training and do well and make an impression," Nationals' skipper Matt Williams told reporters. "I think they both made a great impression on me and the coaching staff. Me being the new guy last year, I didn't know them much. I got a lot of fantastic reports from all the guys that were on the coaching staff because they all coached them at one point or another. They both made great strides last year. They both handled their respective leagues with no problem. For Steven, he's ready. He's a big leaguer. He's proven everything he can prove. Michael could certainly take the next step, but he also played well in the big leagues. So there's opportunity for both of them to make an impression in spring."

What role with they be competing for though? The starting outfield is set with Jayson Werth in left, Denard Span in center and Bryce Harper in right field in 2015. Nate McLouth is healthy and expected to be back on the bench, though the Baltimore Orioles reportedly believe he might be made available at some point.

Kevin Frandsen is back on a 1-year/$1M deal. Jose Lobaton is the backup catcher. Danny Espinosa, if the Nationals do sign a second baseman, can fill the utility role he filled in 2014. Tyler Moore is out of options and can play first or left field. Is Souza comfortable at playing first if he was asked to?

"I've actually got more years under my belt in the infield than I do in the outfield," he said this weekend.

"So, going back to first base and playing there, I was just talking to everybody in there [at NatsFest] about it, I'm ready and I can do it and I'm excited if I need to do that."

What about making the adjustment from playing every day in the minors to a bench role? As a pinch hitter last year, Souza was 0 for 7 with four Ks in eight PAs (an obviously small sample size).

"Overall, I don't think I did very well," Souza admitted. "Down the stretch I felt like I did a lot better. I kind of got into a rhythm. It was something that I was never used to. So getting used to it was kind of the key and then I felt like once I finally found a groove and whatnot, I got kind of rolling in September. So just kind of build off that."

"It's just a completely different mindset," he added, "and it's just kind of understanding that you're going to get one at bat and you need to be ready in a different type of environment, whereas if you're playing every single day you had kind of, a couple at bats to get ready."

Taylor said the limited exposure he got at the major league level showed him what it takes to fill a bench role, and he had veteran teammates to watch and learn from.

"It was nice to get those at bats just to see," he said. "It's completely different getting ready for the game or getting ready for that at bat, or I might get a defensive switch maybe and one at bat. So just seeing guys on your team like [Kevin] Frandsen and [Scott] Hairston, the way they get ready for the game, was an adjustment and it's something that I can definitely do and I learned a lot, just seeing them."

Both outfielders learned a lot in the time they spent in the majors. Is Souza more likely to win a bench role since he's got some experience on Taylor and gives the Nationals a backup option in the outfield and at first?

Does Taylor's skill set and lack of experience at Triple-A make it more likely that he returns to the Nats' top minor league affiliate at the start in 2015?

Where do they fit in going forward?

"They fit as two of the best prospects in all of baseball," Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo said this weekend. "So they're very talented players and guys that are going to come to Spring Training and try and earn a job."