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Victor Robles vs. Michael Taylor: Who has the edge in the Washington Nationals’ center field competition?

There’s a chance it’ll be Michael Taylor — not Victor Robles — starting in center field for the Washington Nationals on Opening Day.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Who is Michael A. Taylor?

The Washington Nationals’ former sixth-round pick entered his rookie season in 2015 ranked by Baseball America as the 32nd best prospect in baseball. He has since developed a defensive prowess in center field matched by few across the league, but his bat has remained inconsistent — as evidenced by his yearly OPS: .640, .654, .806, .644.

Barry Svrluga is a sports columnist for The Washington Post who appeared on the FanGraphs podcast Effectively Wild on Saturday to preview the Nationals’ upcoming season. When asked about which version of Taylor best reflected who he really is, Svrluga said he believed the outfielder’s strong 2017 campaign was an outlier.

“Every time I decide that I’ve decided something about Michael Taylor, he kinda does the opposite,” Svrluga said. “I feel like there’s this weird in between with him where he’s not really great off the bench because he needs regular at-bats but when he gets regular at-bats over months and months he kind of gets exposed.”

When Spring Training began, Taylor was the team’s presumptive fourth outfielder behind veteran Adam Eaton, wunderkind Juan Soto and top prospect Victor Robles. Although manager Davey Martinez left the door open for a possible competition between Taylor and Robles for the center field job, it appeared to be nothing more than a nice gesture to the veteran.

However, as Taylor has batted .474 (9-for-19) with three doubles and a home run in eight games this spring, it appears the gesture was more genuine than originally thought. Martinez has penciled Taylor into the Nats’ “A-team” lineup for each of his last three starts, slotting him eighth or ninth depending on their use of a designated hitter.

Meanwhile, Robles — who’s having a nice spring of his own with a .360/.452/.520 batting line in 31 plate appearances — played Sunday alongside a lineup comprised of bench players and minor leaguers. His spot in the batting order has varied from start to start and he’s made three appearances off the bench (Taylor has only played games in which he’s started).

Although Martinez hasn’t spoken on the state of the competition between the two outfielders, his usage of the two appears to be grooming Taylor for an Opening Day start. For reference, Anthony Rendon is locked in as the team’s everyday third baseman and Martinez probably wants him to hit alongside the teammates he’ll actually be slotted next to in the batting order when the season begins. Robles and Rendon have played in just one game together this spring.

The Nationals have made clear over the years that they want their best prospects playing on an everyday basis, which leaves two rationales for starting Taylor over Robles on Opening Day. Either the team wants to keep Robles in the minors to extend his service time or the duo will be splitting duties to extend the competition into the season.

It’s unlikely the Nats are going the former route, as Robles would need to stay in the minor leagues until June 3 to extend his service time by a season. Given the state of the NL East and the fact that Washington is an underdog after missing the playoffs last year, it’d be a surprising move if the team optioned him to AAA.

As a result, Martinez — who’s said that he wants to field a more consistent lineup in 2019 — may still tinker a bit in the early weeks of the year to see which player extends his hot hitting into the regular season.

It’s worth noting that Taylor has been something of a Grapefruit League all-star over his career, owning a lifetime .946 OPS in Spring Training. Given Taylor’s career OPS of .688 in games that actually count, Martinez would be wise to assume the soon-to-be 28-year-old isn’t likely to hit like that once the team hosts the New York Mets on March 28.

That being said, Taylor appears to at least be getting a shot to prove himself one last time before the team gives away the keys of the future to Robles.

That’s right, Nationals fans. You’ve seen this before.

Previous manager Dusty Baker (likely at the front office’s directive) moved Trea Turner to the outfield for his rookie season rather than replace incumbent shortstop Danny Espinosa in 2016. Espinosa batted just .209 with a .684 OPS yet still played 157 games that season.

Espinosa was coming off a slightly better season than Taylor is now but was widely seen as the one-year stopgap to bridge the team from Ian Desmond to Turner. Taylor now appears to have the opportunity to do the same between Bryce Harper and Robles — albeit they play different outfield positions — unless Robles plays well enough to take the job away from him.

Who is Michael A. Taylor?

We’re about to find out.