Michael A. Taylor Is the Second Center Fielder the Twins Needed

Michael A. Taylor
Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, and welcome to today’s episode of Twins Trade Talk. I’m your host, Ben Clemens, ostensibly a writer at FanGraphs but now an exclusive chronicler of Twin City swaps. Last week, Minnesota traded AL batting champion Luis Arraez in a deal I absolutely loved. If that’s the main course, Monday’s move was dessert:

Let’s start here: I love this trade for both sides. Michael A. Taylor has been a quality contributor when healthy for much of his career, and his last two seasons in Kansas City encapsulate his career well. In a sentence: very good outfield defense is valuable. Taylor hit a paltry .249/.304/.357 in blue and gold, but he was still worth 3.5 WAR (by our calculation, 5.7 per Baseball Reference) over roughly 1,000 plate appearances because he’s one of the best outfield defenders around. Depending on which defensive metric you’re most fond of, he’s either first (DRS), first (UZR), or second by one run (OAA) among all outfielders over the past two years.

Some of that value comes down to how perfectly Taylor fit the Royals’ home, Kauffman Stadium. It’s one of the strangest parks in the majors, particularly in this era of cookie-cutter dimensions. Per Baseball Savant, it’s been the sixth-best park for offense over the past three years. It’s also the third-worst park for home runs; all that offense comes from doubles and triples in its cavernous outfield. There are more plays to make there, which makes above-average defenders shine.

Even without the stadium tailwind, Taylor is a premier defender. As I mentioned above, however, he gives back a lot of that value with his offense. Despite his solid WAR totals, I think he’s best cast as a fourth outfielder and defensive replacement at this point in his big league career. The league seems to agree; he signed a two-year, $9 million contract before the 2022 season, which is about what a fourth outfielder will run you in free agency these days.

Luckily for the Twins, that’s exactly the role they have in mind for him. They were rocked by injuries last year — more than 2,000 games and nearly 10 WAR lost per Baseball Prospectus, both toward the top of a table you really don’t want to be at the top of — and those injuries were exacerbated by their lack of depth. Nick Gordon racked up 443 plate appearances (he was good!). Gilberto Celestino checked in at 347 (he wasn’t!). Jake Cave, Trevor Larnach, Kyle Garlick, Jermaine Palacios, and Matt Wallner were more integral to the team’s success than Twins fans would have hoped. This doesn’t even get into their pitching injuries, which were even worse.

In some sense, that’s unsurprising. Byron Buxton isn’t exactly known as an iron man; he played 92 games last year, which is actually more games than he’s averaged over the course of his career (he’s appeared in 52% of Twins games since his full-time debut in 2016). If you’re designing a team around him, you need a competent backup center fielder. Taylor fits that role perfectly; he’d be a fringe starter for many teams, particularly if they needed outfield defense, but he’s well above the bar as a fill-in.

Broadly speaking, the Twins have considered depth in their strategy this offseason. Pablo López makes the rotation deeper. Christian Vázquez turns Ryan Jeffers into an over-qualified backup. Kyle Farmer is above average defensively at second, third, and short. Edouard Julien isn’t far off as a DH/2B/1B option. If the team’s offense is beset by injuries this year, the first wave of reinforcements is one of the best such collections in the majors.

It’s unfair to think of Taylor only as an injury replacement, though. Even if Buxton plays a healthy season, the Twins will want to give him rest in the outfield, and they’ll also frequently sit Joey Gallo against lefties. Taylor has been much better against lefties than righties in his career — he’s right-handed, so that’s no surprise — which fills yet another need. We’re projecting him for 364 plate appearances, which sounds about right to me.

Plenty of those should come against lefties, too, which will flatter Taylor’s offense. As a full-time starter with the Royals over the past two years, 71% of his plate appearances came against righties. If he’d posted his exact same splits but only faced righties 60% of the time, his AVG, OBP, and SLG would all have risen by a mid-single-digit amount. Even if you regress his platoon splits heavily, the broad point remains: his bat is meaningfully more valuable against lefties, and the Twins have the team construction to put him in those situations more frequently than the Royals did.

In fact, I think Taylor is the best player in all of baseball that the Twins could realistically have acquired as their fourth outfielder. They need a backup center fielder more than any other team in the game. They employ Gallo, perhaps the hitter who most needs a platoon partner. Taylor will even let them slide Buxton to DH on days when they’d like to manage his workload but keep his bat in the lineup. The late-inning defensive outfield of Taylor, Buxton, and Max Kepler is probably the best in the league. Taylor might not raise the team’s ceiling by much, but he reinforces its foundation impressively.

The Twins didn’t get Taylor for free; they sent the Royals two pitching prospects in return. I was broadly aware of both pitchers before this trade but unfamiliar with their exact bona fides and recent performance. As such, I asked Eric Longenhagen for notes on both players, which I’ve synthesized below.

Evan Sisk is a lefty who topped out in Triple-A last year and hasn’t yet been added to the 40-man roster after coming over to the Twins in 2021’s J.A. Happ trade. He projects as a lefty bullpen option with a fastball/cutter/slider combination out of a low arm slot. There’s a lot of modern pitching design to his game; he pairs a sweeping slider with a tailing fastball and uses a cutter more often than a changeup as a pitch to get righties out. He sits 91–93 and sometimes touches 95, but his game is less about velocity than deception.

Eric made particular note of Sisk’s cross-body delivery, and he gives me Andrew Miller vibes in that specific way: he starts on the third-base side of the rubber and plants his foot closer to first base, creating a tough angle. He’s not Miller, to be clear; he’s five inches shorter and has a very different pitch mix. He’ll just give you flashbacks to that particular delivery thanks to his stride and arm slot. He looks the part statistically, too; he probably has 40 command but still posted excellent run prevention numbers across Double- and Triple-A last year. I think Sisk has a future as an up-and-down reliever who gets lefties out reliably, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him end up as the best lefty in a bullpen someday, though that would be an upside surprise for sure.

Steven Cruz is a bigger prospect, both on our lists and literally, though like Sisk he’s not yet on the 40-man roster. He’s a mountain of a man, 6-foot-7 and strong, which lets him top 100 mph with his fastball and sit in the upper 90s. Despite his height, his stride and arm slot give his fastball that coveted shallow shape that lets four-seamers play well up in the zone. There’s not much danger here of him being one of those hollow-velo types.

There is, however, danger of him being one of those all-stuff no-command types. He walked 35 batters in 56 innings last year, and that’s actually his lowest walk rate since his 2017 DSL debut. He throws an upper 80s slider that Eric grades as plus, but with the same caveat: it plays down thanks to trouble locating it. Cruz is a prototypical bulk middle reliever, in other words: nasty stuff and an intermittent idea where the ball is going. Those guys can be quality contributors to major league bullpens, but they rarely turn into elite relief options.

That’s a nice haul for a Royals team that wasn’t realistically contending this year, and it probably doesn’t hurt that their assistant pitching coach, Zach Bove, came over from the Twins this offseason, where he’d been the assistant minor league pitching coordinator (title inflation in baseball is so hot right now). Teams in contending windows either need to have relievers like Sisk and Cruz in their system or trade for them as the need arises. I don’t think either of them has a ton of value as a standalone trade piece, but if the Royals are good in a few years, their bullpen will have more length as a result of this trade.

As an added benefit, moving Taylor opens up the outfield for a young team in need of major league experience. Drew Waters will start the year in center, and while his star dimmed considerably in Atlanta, he’s the kind of player that non-contending teams should take a chance on. He has serious swing-and-miss problems but tons of tools to compensate for that. He might not be the starting center fielder for the next good Royals team, but Taylor certainly wasn’t going to be either, so giving the youth movement an added kick makes sense to me.

If there’s anything to dislike about this trade on either side, it’s that the Twins have thinned out their minor league pitching depth considerably. Their current major league bullpen didn’t have space for either Sisk or Cruz, but as I mentioned above, contenders inevitably need bullpen depth due to injuries or ineffectiveness. If one of Jovani Moran or Caleb Thielbar turns into a pumpkin, it would be nice to plug Sisk in for a week or two. The same is true of Cruz, particularly if he’s commanding the ball well at the time. It probably won’t hurt them, but it might, and that’s about as negative as I can get on this trade.

Overall, I give it two thumbs up on both sides. The Twins have needed someone like Taylor for years, and they’ve consistently failed to find a good option. In the last three years, their top non-Buxton center fielders have been Celestino, Rob Refsnyder, and Cave. The Royals need talent and team control, and Taylor wasn’t exactly going to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs for them. When you put it that way, it’s no surprise that two divisional rivals found common ground.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

A good trade that makes it even more likely (necessary) that the Twins trade and outfielder or two, probably for relief pitching depth. Kepler to the Yankees for Schmit??

Milton Babip
1 year ago
Reply to  Morland

It would seem likely bordering on necessary, except that after the Arráez-López trade, Alex Kirilloff now has 1B fully clear for him and basically no longer contributes to the outfield logjam. Plus Twins’ DH spot is also fully open to rotate any of the corner bat types, in addition to giving days off to Correa and Buxton.

They still have a whole bunch of outfielders or guys who can play the outfield, probably more than they need, but you can see how it works as usable depth.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Babip
1 year ago
Reply to  Morland

Yankees fans have been obsessed with Max Kepler for a while now, and have been proposing unrealistic trades for him just like this.