Michael Taylor was not supposed to be in the everyday lineup for the Washington Nationals in 2015. The 24-year-old center fielder was supposed to spend the whole year in Triple-A, continuing his development as a hitter. That’s not how the season played out, as Jayson Werth and Denard Span battled injuries all year. Taylor wound up playing 138 games for the Nationals and only eight in Triple-A.
Things went well at times in 2015 for Taylor. He played great defense in center and he did hit some moonshot home runs and steal a few bases. Taylor hit 14 homers and stole 16 bases. Overall, however, he was mostly overmatched at the plate. The sixth-round pick from 2009 slashed a modest .229/.282/.358 and struck out 158 times while walking only 35 times. Sliders and changeups ate the rookie up in 2015, which was to be expected. Entering the year, Taylor had played in only 20 games at the Triple-A level.
Entering the 2016 season, there is still a bit of uncertainty for the Nationals. The team is reportedly in hot pursuit of Ben Zobrist, and have been mentioned as a team that could make a play on Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton. Zobrist would likely come to Washington to play second base. The Nationals are prepared to let Span and Ian Desmond, two of their bigger offensive pieces, walk. As currently constructed, the outfield in 2016 will feature Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Taylor.
Right now, Taylor appears to be a part of the long-term plan in D.C. Will it stay that way? Werth has been constantly injured during his tenure with the Nationals. He will turn 37 in May, and is still owed $42 million over the next two years. The only way Werth plays for another team as his massive seven-year, $126 million (woof) contract plays out is if Washington eats a significant portion of the remaining money. Werth has managed to play in over 150 games only once in five years with the Nationals, and took the field only 88 times last year while slumping to a .221/.302/.384 slash line.
Assuming Wert is unmovable and the Nationals do want to play on a big-time outfield bat from the elite trio of free-agent outfielders, where does that leave Michael Taylor? Upton does not have the ability to play center field. Cespedes has played center, but is somewhat of a question mark at the position. The Nationals do have a few options if signing a free-agent outfielder is a real goal.
For starters, Taylor and Werth can split playing time. The only problem with that idea is the fact that both hit right-handed. They are not a natural platoon pairing. Taylor could spend a full year in Triple-A, continuing his development before rejoining the Nationals in 2017, the final year of Werth’s contract. The other option would be to use Taylor in a trade for an elite relief pitcher like Aroldis Chapman.
The Nationals want to be rid of Jonathan Papelbon, and are also viewed as one of the favorites to land setup man Darren O’Day. When the team acquired Papelbon at the deadline, the plan was to build the best one-two punch in the National League with two All-Star caliber closers. Obviously that blew up in their face, as Drew Storen melted down after losing his job. O’Day is clearly a setup man, and would have no aspirations of closing with Washington. Chapman is the best closer in the National League. That would be the ideal one-two punch for the Nationals.
Getting Chapman away from the Cincinnati Reds will be difficult. They’ve made their asking price extremely high, and for good reason. Chapman is now the best closer on the block. The Reds have all the leverage after Craig Kimbrel was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Only Ken Giles of the Philadelphia Phillies is likely to move this winter, but his closing experience is limited. The Phillies do not have a need to rush a trade for Giles, as he has not even reached arbitration. The Reds only have one more year of Chapman. He is most valuable to a team for a full 2016 season, and the Reds will force whoever acquires him to pay through the nose.
Michael Taylor could be an attractive piece to the Reds given his rare combination of speed, power, and good defense. Pairing Taylor next to Billy Hamilton would allow the Reds to essentially neutralize every fly ball hit to one side of the outfield. Taylor needs to continue developing as a hitter, but Great American Ballpark is certainly a great place to do that. It will take more than Taylor to complete a deal for Chapman, but his name would definitely help move talks along.
Any trade involving Michael Taylor should still be viewed as unlikely when looking at the offseason plans of the Washington Nationals. To part with Taylor, the Nationals would have to have already signed a big outfield name, or feel very confident about their chances to do so. Only Upton feels like an outstanding fit, as he is a Virginia Beach native. Cespedes will have plenty of suitors, as will Heyward. If Upton is the play, however, it is difficult to trade Taylor, as that would leave Washington without a natural center fielder. Bryce Harper needs to stay in right field to protect his body. Werth is not playing center field at this point in his career, and there are no real prospects in the minor leagues at the position.
Trading Taylor would likely require the Nationals to sign either Heyward or Cespedes and allow them to play the most important position in the outfield. Cespedes would be the more attractive option in that case, as he will likely command only a five-year deal. Washington will likely shy away from a nine- or ten-year deal for Heyward, as such a long-term deal could get in the way of the big contract Harper will command in a few short years. Cespedes is an upgrade over Taylor at this point in their careers, but if Taylor gets going next year, the gap will be narrowed.
The biggest question is whether or not the Nationals really have the money to pay Cespedes or the desire to part with a potentially budding superstar in Michael Taylor. There was a lot to like about Taylor’s rookie season, and it may be too soon to part ways with him. Taylor has great offensive potential, and could blossom into a 30-30 player at a fraction of the cost to land Yoenis Cespedes.