Trying on Some Fits for Michael A. Taylor

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

I’m biased when it comes to Michael A. Taylor. I know that. I’ve watched him hit too many big homers and unleash too many rockets from deep center not to root for him. For a long time, that meant rooting for him to figure it out at the plate. A Taylor who could just lay off a few more balls, who could just whiff a bit less – OK, a lot less — would have been an incredible weapon. But Taylor is entering his age 33 season, and those dreams died long ago, one flailing strikeout at a time. These days, rooting for Taylor doesn’t mean wishing for him to develop new skills; it means hoping that he finds a nice comfortable place to demonstrate the ones he actually has.

In 2021, Taylor took home a Gold Glove and rated as the best defender in all of baseball according to multiple defensive metrics. Over the past two seasons, he still rated as a plus defender (except according to DRP, which rated him as a net negative defensively 2023). Taylor is also coming off the second-best offensive season of his career; he put up a 96 wRC+, balancing out a strikeout rate that jumped all the way to a calamitous 33.5% by launching 21 homers in just 388 plate appearances. There’s no telling whether this approach will stick, but it certainly makes sense for Taylor. Who better to sell out for power than someone who’s not going to make enough contact no matter what he tries? Taylor boasts one other important skill: health. According to Baseball Prospectus, when Taylor missed 15 days with a hamstring strain last season, it marked the longest absence of his entire big league career.

In all, Taylor has spent 10 years in the big leagues, and despite his 82 wRC+, he’s averaged 1.6 WAR per 150 games. If you want to be generous, you could discount the -0.1 WAR Taylor totaled in his 2014 cup of coffee and 2015 rookie season, leaving you with 1.9 per 150 games. Over the past three seasons, that number is nearly 2.0 on the dot. Surely, there’s a team out there that could use no. 34 on our Top 50 Free Agents list, a league-average center fielder who doesn’t get on base but has a great glove and some pop.

At the same time, there isn’t any particular reason to believe that Taylor’s going to maintain last year’s near-average offense, and none of the projection systems are buying it. As a defense-first center fielder, Taylor’s value is tied up in his legs. Despite that hamstring strain, Taylor’s sprint speed and home-to-first times were nearly identical in 2022 and 2023. He took advantage of the new pickoff rules by stealing 13 bases and accruing 2.3 baserunning runs, his highest mark since 2018. Still, as he creeps toward his mid-30s, there’s no telling when he’ll lose a step. Right now, he’s a useful bench piece on a contender or a cromulent starter on a noncontender, but as soon as he can’t run them down in the outfield, his usefulness will vanish.

So I’ve laid out the pros and cons of signing Taylor. First, here are all the teams linked to Taylor: the Angels, Padres, Pirates, Mets, Reds, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Twins. Once Cody Bellinger signs somewhere — assuming Cody Bellinger actually does sign somewhere — Taylor will be the top center fielder on the market. He doesn’t have the offensive ceiling of Adam Duvall, but he’s still got the glove.

The biggest sticking point seems to be that, coming off the first 20-homer season of his career, Taylor is looking for a two-year deal. Unfortunately, his age and track record are limiting him to the kind of one-year deal that Ben Clemens predicted. From here on out, he’ll likely get one-year deals for as long as he can keep playing good defense. Nobody wants to be stuck with a defensive specialist whose defense has disappeared. Baseball is a rough game, and when it comes to Taylor, it increasingly resembles a game of musical chairs.

The Dodgers have solidified their outfield situation by signing Teoscar Hernández and bringing back Jason Heyward for another year. The Blue Jays have done the same by signing utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa and re-signing Kevin Kiermaier. The Mets now have their own defensive specialist in Harrison Bader. The Reds could certainly use help in the outfield, possibly as a platoon partner for Will Benson, but they’re pretty well blocked, too. They already have the speedy TJ Friedl in center, and with their roster stuffed to the rafters with infielders, they don’t have much space to spare.

Early in the offseason, the Red Sox acquired outfielder Tyler O’Neill from the Cardinals, but Taylor would make sense for the Sox if they trade Jarren Duran, which they reportedly have considered. The Padres, one of the teams that has reportedly discussed a Duran deal with Boston, is desperate for outfielders after trading away Juan Soto and Trent Grisham in December. Manager Mike Shildt said earlier this month that José Azocar would get a shot to play center during spring training, but Taylor is pretty clearly a better option. Also, signing him wouldn’t preclude San Diego from bringing up a prospect like Jackson Merrill once the season starts. One of those teams should have a spot for Taylor.

He would also make sense in Pittsburgh, allowing the left-handed Jack Suwinski to slide into a corner and split time with the right-handed Edward Olivares. On the other hand, the Pirates already have awarded one-year deals to Aroldis Chapman, Martín Pérez, Andrew McCutchen, Yasmani Grandal, and Rowdy Tellez this offseason. We have their estimated payroll for 2024 at $81 million, well above the $70 million we estimated in 2023. How much more money should we realistically expect Bob Nutting to spend?

That brings us to the Angels and the Twins. Both teams have been linked to Taylor and Duvall. The Angels already have a center fielder named Mike Trout — ever heard of him? — which means that both teams would allow Taylor to keep the role he excelled at with Minnesota last season: spelling an all-world talent who struggles to stay healthy. That role seems to be a priority for the Angels, as they reportedly were also in on Bader and Kiermaier before the two signed elsewhere. Maybe that will motivate them to consider extending a two-year deal to Taylor or offering to pay him more than the Twins, who are expected to spend somewhere between $125 and $140 million this year. Their current payroll is an estimated $124 million.

Still, it’s hard to picture a scenario where Los Angeles is a better fit for Taylor than Minnesota. The Angels are hoping for a full season from Trout. The Twins have been clear that while they’re excited to have Byron Buxton back playing center field again, they are only expecting him to play there for roughly 80 games. If you’re Taylor, you have to imagine that if the offers look even remotely similar, you’d be more interested in returning to the team where you expect to get more playing time. The team with which you just put up one of your better seasons. The one that has made the playoffs in four of the last seven seasons.

Taylor raises the ceiling for a team that doesn’t feature a true center fielder, and raises the floor for a contender in need of a useful bench piece. On the kind of one-year deal that he is likely to get, his price is reasonable enough for all but the most penurious clubs. Over the past five seasons, he was a fit on a World Series championship team in Washington, a rebuilding team in Kansas City, and a solid playoff contender in Minnesota. This offseason, he’s been linked to nearly a third of the teams in the league, including those near the top and bottom of the projected standings, so it’s easy to understand why he has waited this long.

At the same time, it’s February 21, and as other outfielders have signed and filled some of the available roster spots, more and more of the floor has turned into lava. That would be concerning for other unsigned players, but it should be less so for Taylor, considering that his particular skillset fits on just about any club. As long as his legs hold up, he is standing on solid ground.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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3 months ago

The White Sox could have signed him and held on to Christian Mena. He would have instantly become their second best OF and is a good target for a rebuilding team since he’s the kind of guy that is likely to have a little bit of value at the deadline, especially for a team with OF depth or injury problems.

But they acquired Dominic Fletcher and will hand him the RF job while LF is blocked by Benintendi’s contract and replacement level performance.

3 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

I find it hard to believe that Taylor would not be the best outfielder on any MLB team. Hit? Better than most second-string catchers.