Taylor will get playing time, but Werth has earned it, too

VIERA, Fla. - It has become probably the biggest story of Nationals camp, slowly building each day just as Michael A. Taylor's batting average slowly rises to eye-catching numbers.

At one point Thursday afternoon, as he rounded the bases following his fourth home run of the spring, Taylor sported a .500 batting average in Grapefruit League play, his slugging percentage an ungodly .944.

And those numbers weren't a byproduct of crazy-good luck. Taylor consistently has hit the ball hard all spring, most notably to center and right fields on a regular basis. (To wit: All four of his homers have gone the other way.)

So this has only fueled a debate that already was beginning to heat up at the start of camp when Taylor supporters were pushing for the Nationals to make him an everyday player ahead of Jayson Werth.

Michael A. Taylor white close.jpgThere's certainly merit to that line of reasoning. Taylor is one of the more promising young outfielders in baseball, and he flashed enough of his skills both at the plate and in the field last season to suggest he's ready for the full-time challenge. Werth, meanwhile, is two months shy of his 37th birthday, coming off his worst season since he became a regular big leaguer in 2004, with declining skills both at the plate and in the field.

Here's the reality of the situation: It's not going to happen, at least not on opening day, not if everyone's healthy.

And here's why: Werth has earned the right to prove to everyone whether he can still be an everyday player or not.

He's earned that right based on a career's worth of success, but even more specifically based on his success in recent years. How quickly we forget Werth's performance in 2014, when he hit .292 with a .394 on-base percentage and .849 OPS in 147 games. He was a four-win player according to Baseball-Reference.com's WAR formula, a five-win player according to FanGraphs.com's formula.

We're not talking about ancient history here. This was 18 months ago.

Now, Werth wasn't anywhere close to that same player last season. FanGraphs had him with a WAR of -0.3, Baseball-Reference with an atrocious -1.6. The question is whether that was due to age finally catching up with him or injuries wreaking havoc with his performance.

Werth had no spring training in 2015 and spent the first week of the season on the disabled list while recovering from shoulder surgery. It took him a while to find his hitting stroke. Then, just as it was happening in mid-May, he got hit by a pitch on his hand and wound up fracturing a bone that knocked him out another couple months. He once again took a while to find his stroke once healthy, but eventually he did, posting an .836 OPS over his final 42 games.

So, which is it: Was Werth bad in 2015, or was he just hurt? He deserves a chance to prove the latter.

None of this is to suggest Taylor should or will just waste away on the Nationals bench this season. Dusty Baker has made it clear the 24-year-old will play. Werth is going to get regular days off and should be subbed out late in games for defense, with Ben Revere sliding over to left field and Taylor taking over in center.

Revere also will get regular days off. Even Bryce Harper is going to be forced to sit every once in a while. (Baker has brought up several times this spring Hank Aaron's longstanding belief that everybody should sit out two games per month for non-injury-related reasons, making 150 games played the target, not 162.)

Taylor is going to get his at-bats, probably 400 of them, if the Nationals' best-case plan comes to fruition.

Now, that doesn't mean Werth deserves a guaranteed place in the lineup the entire season, not if he's not performing up to standard. The Nationals' leash on him should be shorter than it has been in the past. If he's hitting .187 on May 1 and struggling to track down semi-routine balls in left field, Baker is going to have to make the call and have a tough discussion with his veteran leader.

This, though, is what Baker excels at, the reason the Nationals hired him in the first place. Here was his answer Thursday to a question about Taylor's crazy-good spring and what it means moving forward:

"I can't say enough," Baker said. "I can't say any more than I said yesterday. He did the same thing yesterday, or the day before. He's been playing his butt off. Him and Ben Revere, both of them are having great springs. They do what they're supposed to do. Ben's supposed to get on base and score runs. Michael has the capability of doing everything. But we can only play three at a time. There's not a quarterback controversy. It is what it is."

Baker gets it. He knows this has the potential to become a sticky situation, but he's trying to diffuse it before it comes to a head.

Michael A. Taylor will get his playing time in 2016. He's earned it.

But so will Jayson Werth. He's earned it, too.

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