Taylor, after all, had already been given opportunities to take over as the everyday center fielder each of the previous two seasons when the originally designated starter went down to injury (Denard Span in 2015, Ben Revere in 2016). And Taylor had failed to make the most of those opportunities, showing flashes of his natural abilities at the plate and in the field, but unable to sustain any level of success.
Why would this third opportunity be any different? Well, it was.
There was no more improved player on the Nationals roster in 2017 than Taylor, and that includes Ryan Zimmerman, who may have seen his production skyrocket but had already proven himself to be an elite major league hitter earlier in his career. Taylor entered the season having never batted higher than .231 or reached base at a clip higher than .282 while sporting one of the worst strikeout rates in the majors.
He finished the season a wholly new player, batting .271 with a .320 on-base percentage and .806 OPS, blossoming into a legitimate force in the Nationals lineup to go along with improved and stellar defensive play. And he took things up another notch in October, hitting .333 with two homers, eight RBIs and some monstrously huge hits for the Nats during their five-game playoff series loss to the Cubs.
Just like that, the perception of Taylor changed in dramatic fashion. But all of this has raised a brand-new question: Should the Nationals now consider trading him this winter?
If the prudent move for a general manager is to buy low and sell high, then Taylor sure looks like a perfect candidate to be dealt. The fact the Nationals have significant outfield depth on their roster bolsters the case.
If Taylor could be used as a centerpiece in a deal for another starting pitcher, someone under club control for several years, wouldn’t that make sense for the Nats?
Here’s the dilemma, though: What if Taylor’s 2017 performance wasn’t a mirage. What if he legitimately took a key step in his development and at 26 is now poised to get even better as he reaches his prime? Why would the Nationals want to part ways with a player like that, especially one who can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season?
This is what the club’s decision makers must contemplate right now. If Taylor was the real deal this year, they’d be crazy to get rid of him. If he’s destined to revert to his previous form, they’ll never be in better position to get some real value in exchange for him.
What about that organizational outfield depth? If Taylor isn’t the Nationals’ starting center fielder come opening day, who gets that job?
Did Brian Goodwin show enough as a fill-in this season to merit a starting job? Is Victor Robles ready to be a full-time big leaguer? How does Bryce Harper’s future fit into this equation? If Harper re-signs with the Nationals, they’re set in right field, leaving Robles as the likely long-term answer in center field. But if Harper leaves next winter, Robles suddenly becomes the long-term answer in right field, perhaps making Taylor more valuable to the Nats.
That’s the dilemma. Taylor was such a bright spot in 2017, confirming what so many in the organization had believed for years, the reason they stuck with him all along. But is this who he now is, or did we perhaps already see the best version of him?