Sunday was a good news day for the Washington Nationals. Not only did they defeat the Phillies 4-1 to win their first series of the year, but Denard Span returned from the disabled list and went 1-for-5 in his season debut. In order to clear room on the roster, the Nats sent down rookie Michael A. Taylor. Taylor did a fine job manning center field in Span's stead, batting .271/.314/.500 with two home runs and two steals in three attempts. Today, we'll examine whether the Nats made the right move by sending Taylor out....
Major League roster/bench
In terms of fielding the best 25 man roster that the Nats can have right now, this isn't the optimal move. Taylor was unlikely to see many starts over Bryce Harper, Denard Span, or Jayson Werth, but he was almost certainly the fourth best outfielder on the roster. The Nats figure to have three players who can man corner outfield spots, one of whom might be able to fill in as a center fielder in a pinch. We won't look at Dan Uggla or Jose Lobaton, since Taylor isn't an infielder (OK... once upon a time he was) or a catcher. Here's what they have left behind Harper, Span, and Werth...
- Reed Johnson - The 38-year-old Johnson has had a pretty strong career as a fourth outfielder and lefty masher off the bench. However, that age is starting to show. He's turned in just a .239/.284/.345 line over the past two seasons with the Marlins and Braves. Furthermore, he hasn't seen a whole lot of action defensively in center field recently, which could be a sign that his managers are recognizing that he may be losing a step or two.
- Tyler Moore - Unlike Johnson, who was a solid defensive outfielder at one point, Moore makes every ball hit his way an adventure. He has about as much power as Taylor does, but doesn't have the defensive chops or speed that Taylor brings with him. Of course, Moore is out of options, which means that the Nats would risk losing him if they tried to send him down. One would have to think that he's also just about out of chances with the organization. Since a strong rookie campaign in 2012 (.263/.327/.513), Moore has looked more like a AAAA player. He's hit fairly well in the minors, just as he always has. However, he's hit just .225/.274/.360 in 278 big league plate appearances and hasn't been able to force his way into staying up for good.
- Clint Robinson - The converted first baseman actually has fewer career big league plate appearances than Taylor does. While he's done well throughout his minor league career, we can't really hang the prospect label on a thirty year old. He is what he is, and that might be good enough to hang on as a bench bat with the Nats for most or all of this season. He has no defensive value, but he can handle left field in a pinch.
If the only factor at play here was ensuring the Nats had the best 25 man roster they could for 2015, Taylor would be a clear choice to stay over any of these three players. He's a far better defender than Moore, Robinson, and (to a lesser degree) Johnson. He's as likely to come up and hit a home run in a big spot as Moore, Robinson, and (to a greater degree) Johnson. He would easily be the top pinch running option of the bunch. Of course, 2015 isn't the only factor in play here......
Making sure Taylor plays every day
Unlike Reed Johnson, Tyler Moore, and Clint Robinson, Taylor figures to have a future as a starting position player for the Washington Nationals. At 24 years old, Taylor likely still has some developing to do. Based on his trial with the big league club, I think we're all familiar with the primary thing he needs to improve upon... making more consistent contact.
Taylor's stay in D.C. was exciting. He showed off his power with a couple of absolute bombs. He showed off his speed with a couple of stolen bases and some nice range in the outfield. He even showed that he can handle center field fairly well despite a few hiccups in the Boston and Philadelphia series. While it was a small sample, his numbers (.271/.314/.500) weren't bad for a glove first hitter at the bottom of the order*. Of course, asking him to sustain a .407 BABIP is probably unreasonable. However, if he makes the proper adjustments, he can cancel out the expected BABIP regression in other areas as his career progresses.
*No. Williams didn't use him that way the whole time he was up.
Taylor's biggest weakness was no surprise. He struck out in 30% of his plate appearances between AA, AAA, and the majors (39.5%) in 2014. It was reasonable to assume that he might get exposed and strike out quite a bit while the Nats waited for Span to return. He fanned in 37.3% of his plate appearances this April, which was maybe a bit more often than I expected he would.
It's odd... It didn't feel like he struck out that often having watched him for the past two weeks, but he did have six games where he struck out more than once and three games where he struck out three times. Given that we're dealing with a twelve game sample, that's an awful lot of empty plate appearances. This may always be a bit of a hole in Taylor's game.
Still, the most likely way that he's going to improve in that area is to continue seeing regular playing time. He just wasn't going to do that in Washington with Harper, Span, and Werth all healthy. By sending Taylor down to AAA, the Nats will get their projected 2016 starting center fielder in the lineup every day against stronger pitching than he's faced for most of his career. He won't see very many Matt Harvey or Cole Hamels types in Syracuse, but the International League has its fair share of AAAA pitchers like Sean O'Sullivan and Jerome Williams. Many of the pitchers he'll face in Syracuse have borderline big league stuff and far better breaking balls than he's seen at the lower levels. Gaining experience against that type of competition will help him.
Which is more important?
The Nats figure to contend in 2015, so this is a dicey answer. If Harper, Span, or Werth suffer another injury and a starting job opens up for Taylor, he should be called back up. For now, the Nats are better off ensuring that their young potential star is getting 500+ plate appearances in 2015... even if the majority of those plate appearances are in the minor leagues. With Harper, Span, and Werth healthy, the Nats should be able to get away with Reed Johnson (the only bench player who can be trusted defensively) occasionally spelling one of them. As the season progresses, things will likely change.
We'll see Taylor hopefully show that he can make better contact as he gains more experience at the upper levels of the system. We'll see what the Nats position in the standings looks like as the season progresses. If they haven't started to pull away by July, Taylor will at least have the experience of playing half a season in AAA before being recalled. We may see another injury open up playing time with the big league club for Taylor at some point this season. I don't want to sound fatalistic, but Harper, Span, and Werth don't exactly have great track records when it comes to staying healthy.
Sending Taylor down does weaken the 25 man roster for the time being, but it doesn't weaken the starting lineup. I agree that having a strong bench is important and an area where the Nats haven't exactly excelled in recent years. However, making sure that he's getting consistent playing time outweighs the need to have a better bench bat than Johnson... or Moore... or Robinson. We'll see Michael Taylor again before the end of August.