LAS VEGAS - If there’s any player on the Nationals roster who needs to chill out and press the reset button, it’s center fielder Michael A. Taylor, whose hopes of following up a breakout 2017 campaign were dashed last season when general ineffectiveness cost him a starting job and made him question how he was going about his daily work.
So what’s Taylor doing in the Dominican Winter League with Gigantes de Cibao, where he was a late addition to the roster and is hitting .143 (2-for-14) with a double and two RBIs in just four games? Most players who have spent the better part of four full seasons in the majors aren’t keen on playing winter ball. But most players didn’t experience the drop-off Taylor did during a lost season when playing time was hard to come by and he slashed just .227/.287/.357 with six homers and 28 RBIs - career lows since he began playing regularly.
Count Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo among those who are happy Taylor is willing to take such a step, which will be followed later this winter by an in-home visit by Nats hitting coach Kevin Long to his South Florida home.
“Because of the lack of the at-bats he had towards the end of the season, it’s always important to see live pitching,” Rizzo said yesterday at the Winter Meetings. “We thought that it was important to get some one-on-one work with Kevin, who’s one of the best hitting coaches in the game, and really break down his swing and kind of give Michael a fresh start going in to spring training.”
It may be too early to think of Taylor, 27, as a reclamation project, but it’s clear he may be on the outside looking in as the Nationals configure their outfield for next season. Assuming Bryce Harper departs in free agency, Adam Eaton will man right field, rookie Victor Robles could be the starter in center and Juan Soto will play left. If he doesn’t want to be a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter - roles he didn’t excel at last season - Taylor needs to show in spring training that he’s capable of forcing manager Davey Martinez’s hand when it comes to lineup decisions.
Hence the extra at-bats in a foreign country when many of his teammates are using the weeks approaching Christmas to rest their bodies. Taylor got only 79 plate appearances in the second half of last season following 306 in the first half. With Harper playing center field semi-regularly, Taylor found himself riding the pine.
Rizzo still believes Taylor can be a productive major leaguer, that his .271/.320/.486 slash with a career-high 19 homers and 63 RBIs in 2017 - followed by a .333/.444/.733 slash in the National League Division Series loss to the Cubs - were not aberrations.
That’s one reason the Nats want Long to work one-on-one with Taylor over the winter. Long, the proponent of launch angle’s ability to transform a player, has a definite project in Taylor, who had the fourth-lowest launch angle on the Nats among players with 50 or more at-bats.
“His raw power is there,” Rizzo said of Taylor. “He just needs to put the bat on the ball more often. The power numbers will be there. You’re talking (about) a guy who has extreme power to the opposite field, and he can hit ‘em as far as anybody. The power has never held him back; it’s not anything that we worry about. It’s getting to the power. ... The hit tool, utilizing it to get to the power. If he can do that, improve on that, it’s going to make a big difference in his game.”
Some observers have wondered if there have been too many moving parts in Taylor’s swing of late, including a leg kick. Taylor has spent a lot of time working in the video room to try to determine ways to calm down and shorten his swing. Winter ball at-bats and his planned work with Long are the next steps in the process.
“Hopefully, he hones down in his swing and puts the ball in play and help us out a lot,” manager Davey Martinez said.
If so, perhaps Taylor starts to more fully fulfill the promise that attracted the Nationals enough to make him a sixth-round selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
“I believe, seeing him as much as I have, you’re talking about a dynamic player,” Rizzo said. “With adjustments, he could be a special type of big league player. Gold Glove-caliber defender, he’s got a plus-plus arm and he’s accurate - throws a lot of guys out. He’s a terrific baserunner, he’s a great basestealer. He’s got great power. He figures out the contact portion of it a little better, you’re talking about a guy who could have five tools. He’s had flashes of it in the past and he needs to be more consistent in his approach at the plate, because the kid’s a really good player.”