There doesn't appear to be much question as to whether Michael A. Taylor is one of the 25 best players in the Washington Nationals organization right now. The 24-year-old outfielder has earned rave reviews as one of the best defensive outfielders in the minors. Despite a few defensive hiccups during his first stint in D.C. this season, would be expected to be the second best defensive outfielder on the team right now. He can hit, too. Taylor demolished AA last season (.313/.396/.539 with 22 HR and 34 SB) as he tore through three levels of the system. He has terrific power and tremendous speed, which should make him an asset on the Nationals bench in a variety of ways....
- He's a potential ace defensive replacement for Jayson Werth late in ballgames
- He's a right-handed hitter who can change a game with one swing off the bench
- He's a legitimate threat to steal a base off the bench
Of course, finding Taylor consistent playing time could be a concern over the course of the season. He should see a few extra chances over the next few weeks. Denard Span (abdominal surgery) and Jayson Werth (shoulder surgery) are still recovering from offseason injuries and may benefit from taking the occasional extra day off. Still, a healthy Nats outfield would make it pretty difficult for the rookie to force his way into the lineup very often.
Span is a proven defensive stud coming off of a season in which he hit .302/.355/.416 atop the Nats lineup. He's pretty much the engine that makes the Nats lineup run. Werth has led the team in wRC+ the past two seasons and on-base percentage three years running. Even though the winds may be changing (cough.. Harper), Werth has been their best hitter the past few years. Bryce Harper is.... well... he's not sitting as long as he's healthy. Regardless of how well Taylor plays, there's almost no chance that he pushes Span, Werth, or Harper to the bench and becomes a regular starter.
A few weeks ago when Taylor went down, I shared my thoughts on the decision. Those thoughts still haven't changed. Taylor is supremely talented and incredibly athletic, but he also has some aspects to his game that look very raw.
Offensively, there's a lot of swing and miss to his game. While I don't feel that there's any chance he ever becomes an above average contact hitter, I do think that he could improve enough in that area to become below average instead of being the second coming of Adam Dunn (or Danny Espinosa). How is a player with a raw "hit" tool going to try and refine his approach? By getting at bats, of course.
Defense is supposed to be Taylor's calling card, but he's looked a little raw in that area as well. It could be that we've been spoiled the past two seasons watching Denard Span, but Taylor doesn't exactly seem to take the best routes on balls hit to the outfield. He's usually able to overcome his poor routes because of his speed and athleticism. We also saw some communication issues when he was up with the Nats earlier this season. Taylor is a converted infielder, so he's not a guy who has been playing the outfield for his whole life. The more experience he's getting out there, the more opportunities he'll have to try and correct his weaknesses.
Making the decision to call Taylor up instead of Matt den Dekker
Let's start with den Dekker's (SSS) performance in Syracuse this season, which may have had a hand in the decision. Matt den Dekker is batting just .196/.226/.196 and a 21 wRC+ for the Chiefs in 53 plate appearances. There's bad, there's brutal, and then there's what Matt den Dekker has done so far. He has ten hits (all singles) and one walk on the year. While den Dekker is also supposed to be very strong defensively, it's not like he has a glove that is so much better than Taylor's that you overlook the complete lack of a bat that he's had so far this season.
That said, it appears that den Dekker and Taylor figure to have significantly different career arcs moving forward. Matt den Dekker worked his way into being a solid contributor off the bench for the Mets last season. Still, at 27, he has below average power, an average/slightly above average baserunning tool, and decent on-base skills. Toss in a good glove and he's your prototypical cheap fourth outfielder for the next few seasons. There really isn't a lot of upside here. He's a finished product, and he's probably never going to be more than a backup outfielder.
Taylor, on the other hand, appears to be the Nats future starter in Center Field. He flashed big power last season (24 HR in 536 PA between three levels) and has stolen 30+ bases in each of the past two seasons. He's shown a willingness to work the count (9.5%+ BB rate the past three years), but he does have those weaknesses mentioned above. The biggest issue would be his 30% strikeout rate (including the minors) last season, which has ballooned up to 34.9% between AAA and the majors early in 2015. Still, he's 24 and has just 619 career plate appearances above A ball. There's still some time for him to develop. Getting Taylor regular at bats (even in AAA) figures to be more important than getting a guy like den Dekker regular at bats.
Weighing present vs. future needs
The Nats are in a difficult position here. They're not only expected to contend, but they've gotten out of the gate slowly. In a season where a team is expected to contend, it can be logical to worry more about the present than the future. The best thing for the present is for the Nats to have the best 25 players that they have in the organization on the big league roster. Michael Taylor figures to be one of the top 25 players in the organization for the 2015 season. Hence, Taylor should be on the big league roster if the Nats are focused more on the present.
Of course, you do want to play the long game as well. The expectation is that Michael Taylor will be the Nats starting Center Fielder in 2016 (and for several years after that). When you're expecting big(ger) contributions next season from a player with as significant a flaw as Taylor's strikeout problem, you want to give him the best opportunity possible to correct that flaw. This would seem more likely with 400 more plate appearances at the AAA level than 150 more plate appearances at the major league level. Both AAA and the majors are levels where Taylor hasn't seen a lot of action. In fact, he actually has more big league plate appearances (94) than AAA plate appearances (84). It's not like he has nothing to learn in the International League.
Handling the workload... How regularly does Taylor have to play for this decision to make sense?
The obvious preference would be to have Taylor playing every day, but that simply isn't going to happen at the big league level. With Span and Werth still recovering a bit, I'd think that the Nats should be looking to get Taylor three starts/15-20 plate appearances per week for the move not to stagnate his development. That probably means he'd spell Werth & Span once a week (each) and maybe give Harper a day off once every two or three weeks against a tough lefty. It also means he should be the first right-handed hitter off the bench on days he doesn't start. If he's up, he has to be getting semi-regular playing time... far more than an average bench player sees.
What would I have done?
It's really a tough call. When the Nats dealt for den Dekker, I thought they were adding a cost-controlled decent defensive outfielder who could contribute a little defensively. About an hour later, they signed an older player who used to be (at his peak) about what den Dekker is now and then kept Reed Johnson on the big league roster over both den Dekker and Taylor. It really never made a lick of sense to me to see Johnson remain with the big club over den Dekker, but hey... veteran... pinch hitter.... doesn't hit righties very well, so let's use him primarily against right-handed pitchers.
*Aside - I do wish Reed Johnson well and hope he recovers soon from his injury. I just don't want to see him getting meaningful at bats for the Washington Nationals.
Given the factors involved.....
- den Dekker's slow start
- Taylor scorching the ball in Syracuse after he was sent down
- (Most importantly) Span and Werth both looking like they may need a few extra days off for a little while
I think Taylor is the right call for now. It's dependent upon Williams making sure that Taylor is getting enough playing time so that he's actually giving him a chance to work on his development. With Span and Werth not back at full speed, there's more of an opportunity for this to happen in the short term. If Williams doesn't give him enough at bats to work on his development, Rizzo should probably call den Dekker up in his place and send Taylor back to AAA for a few more months. Taylor looks like he has a chance to be a key contributor for the 2016-2021 Nationals. He needs to work on some things. That takes precedence over improving a bench spot in the short-term.