One of the more interesting positional battles to watch when spring training convenes in six weeks at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be the second reserve outfielder’s spot on the 25-man roster.
Barring an injury, it’s a pretty good bet that Chris Heisey will be on the roster as a pinch-hitter and a backup to left fielder Jayson Werth, center fielder Adam Eaton and right fielder Bryce Harper. The Nationals will also have shortstop Trea Turner available to play center field in a pinch, though he’ll primarily be an infielder in 2017.
Last year at this time, most would have penciled in Michael A. Taylor for the other outfield opening. While he only slashed .229/.282/.358 in his first full major league season, Taylor played strong defense, showed some pop with 14 homers and 63 RBIs, and proved he could steal bases with 16 thefts in 19 tries. The strikeouts - Taylor whiffed 158 times in 472 at-bats in 2015 - were a concern, but most assumed Taylor would be more comfortable in 2016, therefore a little more selective at the plate.
Well, last season was a disaster for Taylor, 25, who could find himself at a career crossroads heading into 2017. His speed and defense - important calling cards for young players - were still evident, though Taylor made his share of poor plays and took some circuitious routes in the outfield. More importantly, Taylor looked lost at the plate, more lost than his .231/.278/.376 slash line with 77 strikeouts in 221 at-bats would indicate.
The offensive struggles were particularly surprising, considering Taylor was one of the Nats’ hottest hitters in spring training, compiling a .453/.491/.849 line while leading the team with five home runs and knocking in 16 runs, second to Ryan Zimmerman’s 17. All the confidence Taylor had in Florida disappeared somewhere on the flight to D.C. for the final two exhibition games, and even when center fielder Ben Revere went down with an oblique injury in the season opener, Taylor couldn’t seize a sizable opportunity.
While it’s possible sporadic playing time and lack of production were reasons for Taylor’s struggles, the Nationals finally sent him to Triple-A Syracuse on July 7, and he stayed there until being recalled Aug. 28. But things weren’t much better at the top rung of the minor league ladder, where Taylor slashed .205/.285/.291 in 31 games with a homer and nine RBIs.
Though Taylor surprisingly made the National League Division Series roster over Revere and late-season callup Brian Goodwin, it’s clear that Taylor won’t be handed a roster spot come spring training.
So who will his competition be come February?
So far, the Nationals haven’t listed any outfielders among their non-roster invitees, the pack of minor league signings that helps flesh out a spring training game (hey, you don’t want your regulars playing all nine innings, do you?). Turner, strangely enough, continues to be listed as an outfielder, but we know better. Clint Robinson can certainly fill in at the outfield corners, but he’s more of a bat and a first base option (though his presence does offer a certain amount of positional flexibility).
Assuming that the five-man bench consists of Heisey, Robinson, reserve infielder Wilmer Difo and a backup catcher (Jose Lobaton or Pedro Severino, at this point), that leaves only one spot up for grabs, and right now it looks like a battle between Taylor and Goodwin.
Goodwin was promoted from Syracuse on Aug. 6 and impressed manager Dusty Baker with his ability to play all three outfield positions and contribute offensively despite long stretches of inactivity. In 22 games, the 26-year-old slashed .286/.318/.429 and hit .375 (3-for-8) as a pinch-hitter to Taylor’s 0-for-10 mark with eight strikeouts.
There’s something to be said for making a good first impression, and Goodwin will be given a chance this spring to win a 25-man roster spot. He’s a left-handed hitter, which would give the Nats some balance in that regard - Robinson is a lefty swinger, Heisey and Severino hit from the right side, and Difo and Lobaton are switch-hitters.