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Is Michael Taylor a potential leadoff man for the Nationals?

The regular season begins on April 6. This means that those of you who were around last season probably had the over/under on my first Matt Williams rant set at around April 10. If you're a betting man (or woman), I hope that you took the under!

Nats fans should be excited to have the chance to watch Michael Taylor play this season, but they should be hoping he's batting near the bottom of the order.
Nats fans should be excited to have the chance to watch Michael Taylor play this season, but they should be hoping he's batting near the bottom of the order.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We learned Monday that Denard Span required surgery to repair a right core muscle injury.  The general timetable that we're hearing is that Span will need 4-6 weeks before he's ready to resume baseball activities.  Of course, resuming baseball activities doesn't mean starting major league baseball games. Span had just two plate appearances in the first Spring Training game of the year before aggravating the injury.  He's probably going to need some time in extended Spring Training and will almost certainly spend at least a week or two on a rehab stint in the minors before he's back in the big league lineup.  I'm guessing he's out until early-to-mid May.

While Span's presence on the diamond will certainly be missed, it does present prospect Michael Taylor with a tremendous opportunity.  Furthermore, as Span is a free agent after the season, it will give the Nationals a nice opportunity to evaluate his potential successor.  The converted shortstop had a tremendous breakout with the bat last season, batting .313/.396/.539 with 22 HR and 34 SB in 98 games for Harrisburg last season.  He has great power and tremendous speed, but despite the outstanding stats from 2014, his bat isn't necessarily his best trait.

Here's what Baseball America had to say about him in an article about the best defensive center fielders in the minors:

Scouts don’t hesitate to throw double-plus grades on Harrisburg’s Michael Taylor’s (Nationals) range in center field, and it’s easy to see why with an off-the-charts rate of 3.14 PO/G that led anybody with at least 70 games at one level. Of course, Senators pitchers allowed an extreme rate of flyballs (1.14 GO/AO), but even so Taylor averaged nearly half a putout per game more than No. 2 Todd Cunningham (above). Taylor rounded out a terrific defensive profile with a plus arm (10 assists) and sure hands (one error).

The praise doesn't stop there. mentioned him as "The next big thing" in an October article about the minors best defenders in center field:

In the years since the position change, Taylor's emerged not only as one of the Minors' most athletically gifted center fielders but also as one of the most polished. His reads and jumps are excellent for a Minor League defender. He also has an above-average arm he utilizes well, making good decisions and throwing with accuracy.

I will confess that while I'll miss watching Denard Span run perfect route after perfect route early this season, watching Taylor run down balls in center field is going to be fun to watch.  He should have few problems showing that he's strong enough with the glove to play regularly in center field while Span is out.  He's also shown enough pop with the bat and ability on the basepaths so that I'm excited about his offensive potential.

However, I did promise a rant in the foreword, didn't I?  I had the misfortune of reading this tweet from Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes this morning:

Since this article is geared more towards the mention of Taylor in this tweet, I'm only going to touch on Rendon and McLouth briefly.

  • Rendon makes perfect sense.  Among returning starters, he ranked third on the Nats with a .351 OBP last season (behind Jayson Werth and Span).  He makes pretty good contact (his 15.2% K rate was lower than all starters other than Span).  He's not afraid to work the walk.  He's even pretty useful on the basepaths (17 for 20).  I'd prefer to have him batting second, but extreme circumstances call for extreme solutions.
  • McLouth was a nice leadoff man from 2007-2009.  It's 2015, though.  He's coming off of a poor and injury-plagued season, so chances are that he'll be better this season.  However, even his 2013 rebound year saw him finish with just a .329 OBP.  When McLouth plays, he'll likely be the sixth or seventh best hitter in the lineup.  He shouldn't be leading off.
Before I rant about the mention of Taylor as a potential leadoff guy with Span out, I would like to say that I support the second sentence Janes mentioned in the tweet.  Taylor has just been thrust into a much bigger role than expected to begin the 2015 season, so maximizing his at bats during Spring Training games makes plenty of sense.  I'm fine with seeing him bat leadoff when the games don't matter because it's logical to give him as many reps as possible.

Alas, the rant is saved for the mention of Taylor as a potential leadoff man.  Taylor's 2013 (Potomac) and 2014 (Harrisburg) production does show that he could have a future as a big league leadoff man.  He does have some of the traits that both the old and new schools of thought covet in the leadoff spot.
  • For the old school line of thinking, Taylor runs extremely well.  He's 88 for 106 in stolen base attempts across four levels the past two years.
  • For those who subscribe more to the new school, Taylor does have decent on-base skills outside of his pure hitting ability.  Taylor maintained a walk rate of 9.4% in 2012 and 2013 at Potomac and actually showed slightly better patience last season, walking in 11.2% of his plate appearances across three levels.
Although Taylor's power potential indicates that he may profile more as a middle of the order hitter in the future, his on-base skills and speed indicate that he could eventually fit well in the leadoff spot.  Of course, eventually is the key word in that sentence.  FBB's Garrett Hooe wrote a terrific piece this morning discussing some of the adjustments that Taylor has made and will have to make in the future.  Let's look at a passage from that article:

Matt Williams was complimentary about Taylor's ability to jump on fastballs, as shown by his home run against the Yankees, but also noted that the young right-handed hitter also took a wayward hack at a ball in the dirt that same day.

His observation dovetails well with the firetruck red low whiff zone in the chart directly above, where pitchers often targeted their breaking balls. It's a rite of passage for many young major leaguers: prove you can handle fastballs, earn breaking balls, prove you can survive.

For all of the development that Taylor showed with the bat last season, his strikeout rate (30.0% across three levels!) is going to make it awfully difficult for him to have much immediate success.  On top of the strikeout rate alone, both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus have his future hit tool at just 40 (on the 20/80 scouting scale).  I've seen his present hit tool rated at 30.

The fact of the matter is that Taylor has just 95 plate appearances above AA.  He can rip a fastball.  He's getting better at handling off-speed pitches, but he's going to see a lot more (and better) off-speed stuff than he's ever seen before.  I'd be pleasantly surprised if he finishes 2015 with an OBP above .300... which would be abysmal for a leadoff hitter.

If Taylor (or McLouth... or Span, when he's ready to return) were to bat in the leadoff spot, the Nats figure to have Rendon, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Ian Desmond behind him in the order.  The Nationals lineup isn't successful because it has a (peak) Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, or Barry Bonds type of bat sitting in the heart of the order.  It's successful because of the depth of talent and power throughout the lineup.  The threat of having a guy steal second on the rare occasions when he does reach base is far less imposing than the threat of having a guy on any base in front of them with more regularity.

ZiPS projects Taylor for a .228/.291/.370 line this season.  Steamer projects him for a .226/.282/.358 line.  Taylor has plenty of potential both with the bat and the glove, and I'm excited to watch him play both this season and in the future.  That said, there's a better argument to be made for batting the pitcher eighth (and Taylor ninth) than putting the kid in the leadoff spot.  He's going to have a pretty big learning curve at the plate this season.  The Nats can't have him learn on the job in a premium spot in the order.