Down on the Farm: Michael Taylor
When the Nationals entered camp in Viera this spring, there were few positions on the field that were yet to be decided. In fact, one could argue that the only truly open position was in center field. Sure, there has been discussion over the last rotation and bullpen spots, as there is with most every team every year, but center field seemed to be the one position for which fans and media-types alike couldn’t arrive at a definitive answer. Needless to say, though, it will not remain a question mark in the long term. In fact, with the recent assignment of Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse with the specific task of playing in the middle of the outfield, the center field position might now be the deepest in the Nationals farm system. And whether Harper sticks in center or eventually shifts back to a corner outfield spot may depend less on him and more on another player many are talking about in the Nationals chain: Michael Taylor.
That may seem like an overstatement for a young man who has never played above Low-A and who won’t turn 21 until next Monday. But he has impressed enough both inside the organization and out to be placed fourth in Washington’s system in MLB.com’s most recent prospect rankings.
While Taylor’s career slash line through his first two seasons is just .240/.301/.400, that hides the progress he made in the second half of last year at Low-A Hagerstown, where he batted .291/.351/.498 after the break. At 6’2” and just 190 pounds, he is still quite slender, but has a projectable frame that coaches believe will fill out over the next few years, bringing more power along with it. If Taylor’s offense plays out according to plan, he could possess the full regiment of tools at one of the premiere defensive positions in the game.
Taylor was drafted as a shortstop, but the Nationals saw an athlete with great instincts and a solid arm that they believed could handle the premiere outfield defensive slot. Ironically, it was the defensive move that may have helped unlock Taylor’s offensive potential and allowed him to become the complete player the Nationals envisioned when they drafted him in the sixth round out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy in 2009.
“The move to the outfield freed him up a great deal offensively,” explains Doug Harris, the Nationals director of player development. “He’s a gifted defender, in part because of his athleticism, but he’s very instinctive as well. Physically, the sky is the limit for him.”
It is hard to imagine, though, that anyone saw that he would take to it as well as he has. Tony Tarasco, Washington’s Minor League hitting coordinator, saw him come to life in the instructional league last fall.
“I watched him go gap-to-gap his first day out there,” recalls Tarasco. “Of course his playing at shortstop helped him when he went to the outfield, because he could get rid of the ball quicker than a lot of other players. And he’s got a cannon arm, but he’s precise. He doesn’t miss the relay man often.”
Tarasco, who was has been very impressed with what he’s seen out of Taylor in his short time in the system, thinks that the change may have even occurred slightly earlier than when Harris saw it come about. He cites a change in attitude as a key factor in the young player’s development.
“He spent some time with Bob Boone in the cage,” recounts Tarasco. “Mike has always been a shy, quiet kid. He was so respectful that it made him almost timid. I think he left Boony with a little bit of aggression.”
Taylor himself recognizes that whatever his adjustments were, they required some work both with his physical and psychological approach. He is quiet, as Tarasco describes, and almost impossibly polite, and describes his progress earnestly.
“I think the work that I did on the physical side helped me relax more and I was able to be at ease in the box,” he explains of the work he did to improve his swing.
However, he goes on to describe the mental side of the adjustment as well, and in doing so, reveals that he is well beyond his years in terms of mental make-up. One of the words that you will hear the most around a professional baseball diamond is “consistency.” Those who can achieve it, who can ride out the slumps by simplifying the game to its individual pieces, are the ones that survive and move up.
“I really enjoy just having a routine,” explains Taylor, showing a keen understanding of that consistency. “That just keeps me focused on right here, on the field.”
According to Tarasco, for Taylor that means keeping a detailed black book of every at-bat, notes on every pitcher faced, for the entire season. Last year, that meant nearly 500 plate appearances, each tracked meticulously.
“I’ve seen guys start it,” says Tarasco of the exhaustive process. “But they get to July, then they don’t finish it. He was still doing it at the end of the year.”
It is that drive and approach, coupled with what Tarasco describes as a through-the-roof IQ, that he believes will help Taylor continue to progress in the years to come. For his part, Taylor is asking plenty of questions, trying to soak up as much as possible. He also appears to be listening, and not over-thinking when it comes to the larger picture.
“As long as I get my work in and stay focused on what I’m doing, everything else will kind of run its course and things will happen,” says the young outfielder.
In talking to Tarasco, it is easy to see where Taylor gets his approach to the game.
“Every single day, you wouldn’t know if he was 0-for-5 or 5-for-5, he continues to have that relentless attitude,” says Tarasco. “The willpower to move slowly, to go day-by-day, eventually is going to catapult him and spring him ahead.”
While there won’t be any rush to get Taylor to the big leagues, those in the Washington-area may have the chance to keep an especially close eye on him as he will likely make his 2012 debut at High-A Potomac in April.