One minor league position player to watch this season

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals have a handful of pitchers who could quickly move through their minor league ranks and make an impact at the big league level in the next year or two.

Since the promotions of Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, however, the Nats have lacked a big-name position player prospect who can excite fans and leave them looking forward to future seasons.

There is one guy that talent evaluators within the organization will be watching closely this season, however, a guy who manager Matt Williams says is “potentially on the fast track” to the big leagues. That guy is center fielder Michael Taylor.

Pull up Taylor’s offensive numbers and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. He hit .263/.340/.426 with 10 homers and 87 RBIs at high Single-A Potomac last season in his fourth year of professional ball. Solid, but less than spectacular.

So why are the Nats’ scouts going to be watching Taylor so closely this season? Because his defensive ability is otherworldly.

One National League scout told me the other day that Taylor is one of the best defensive center fielders he’s ever seen. Not just within the minor leagues. At any level. And Taylor is just 22.

On the standard 20-to-80 scouting scale, the Nats have Taylor’s defensive ability at an 80, a number which is not given out lightly.

“He throws very well,” said manager Matt Williams, who has been briefed on Taylor extensively. “He’s in the process of learning himself and his own swing, and he would be a guy that is potentially on the fast track. Of course, there are a lot of variables there and a lot of things that can sideline that track sometimes. Slumps, and things like that. But all the tools are there. The tools are certainly present and for all of us to see at this point.

“I want to see him play in games when the other team’s got a different uniform on, and watch him do that. But everything I’ve heard from our staff, from the minor league staff and everybody that’s seen him play, is that he’s a pretty incredible defender in center field.”

Taylor’s offense has been what’s slowed his movement through the Nats’ system, but he’s started to make some improvements in that area. In 2013, his second season at Potomac, Taylor’s batting average jumped 21 points and his OPS jumped 87 points. His power stroke came on last year, as well, as 57 of his 134 hits on the season were for extra bases.

Taylor then followed that up this offseason by posting a .365/.428/.511 slash line in 137 at-bats in the Puerto Rican winter league. It was during winter ball that Taylor learned that he’d been added to the Nats’ 40-man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.

“I was real excited,” Taylor said. “I was pumped.”

The Nats want to see Taylor continue to improve offensively and fine-tune his baserunning skills, but his defense is what could land him in the big leagues sooner rather than later. I asked Williams whether he would rather have a young center fielder who is a lock-down defender at the major league level, or a center fielder who struggles defensively but is more advanced as an offensive player.

“It’s the old adage that defense never slumps,” Williams said. “And that’s key. That’s big. If, in fact, we knock wood every time we say it, but if something happens and you lose somebody for a two-week period or a month period, as an example, then you have somebody that is able to come in and step in and play defense at a high level, then you feel better about that, as opposed to having somebody who is an offensive player. Because ultimately, pitching and defense wins you games.

“So if he’s not as good an offensive player at that time as the guy you lost, potentially, then you’re OK still, because that guy can go get ‘em. He can defend. He can help your team win in that regard. Defense never slumps, and (Taylor is) one of those unique guys that, if he got in a major league game right now, he would stand out. So I can’t wait to see that. I can’t wait to witness that.”

Williams won’t have to wait long to witness it; he has Taylor starting in center field on Friday when the Nats open their spring training schedule at Port St. Lucie against the Mets.

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “Humility is an athlete’s greatest attribute.”

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