This off-season, the Royals’ signings of Mike Minor and Carlos Santana, and trade for Andrew Benintendi generated a lot of buzz among Royals fans. All three moves seemed to be signs that indicated that the Royals were ready to take the next step in the AL Central in 2021, especially with the young crop of starting pitchers (Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar) expected to contribute in some way to the Royals rotation.
Unfortunately, things have not gone as expected for the Royals and Royals fans this season, as they are currently 49-67 going into Monday’s game and sit in last place in the AL Central, 18 games out of first place. To make matters worse, none of those three big acquisitions this off-season have made as big of an impact as initially hoped.
Minor is posting a 1.9 fWAR, but that is mostly due to his ability to eat innings and garner strikeouts, not necessarily limit runs (he is posting a 5.35 ERA). As for Santana and Benintendi, though they showed signs of heating up in May, they have cooled off in the dog days of July and August, as they have combined for a 0.6 fWAR this season, according to Fangraphs. Thus, with such lackluster production from two big bats in the middle of the lineup (in addition to down seasons from Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler, before Soler was traded), it is not a surprise that the Royals have failed to live up to expectations in 2021.
That being said, one overlooked story this season has been the acquisition of Michael A. Taylor, who was signed on a paltry one-year, $1.75 million deal early in the off-season. Taylor wasn’t necessarily a widely sought-out player this off-season, as he was non-tendered by the Nationals after the 2020 season. While the Royals missed out on bigger-name free agents like Robbie Grossman, Eddie Rosario, and Jackie Bradley, Jr., the thought was that Taylor would at least be a serviceable defensive player who could perhaps provide some offensive upside, if fully healthy.
Thankfully for the Royals, Taylor has not only lived up to his contract value, but has surpassed it by a considerable margin. And thus, the Royals may have an interesting scenario on their hands with Taylor, who will be a free agent after this season.
When Dayton Moore signed Taylor this off-season, it was expected that Taylor was going to boost the Royals defensively in center field. The Royals trotted out a whole slew of options in center field in 2020, with a list that included Whit Merrifield, Brett Phillips, and Bubba Starling, just to name a few. However, while Whit’s bat obviously could play in center field, his glove was a different story. Even though he produced a one OAA, according to Baseball Savant, his speed and instincts didn’t seem to click as well in center as it did in the corner outfield spots, or at second base. As for Phillips and Starling, while they were much better defensive options, their offensive output left a lot to be desired.
On a defensive end, Taylor has been the best the Royals have seen in center field since perhaps Lorenzo Cain, which is high praise, especially considering the impact LoCain had on the Royals from 2013-2017. This year, Taylor is producing an OAA of nine, according to Baseball Savant, which is not only the best mark of Royals outfielders, but is actually tied for the best mark of any center fielder in baseball this year (he is currently tied with the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds). Thus, on defense alone, Taylor has been worth the contract he inked with Kansas City this off-season.
That being said on an offensive end, Taylor has been surprisingly effective, even if it hasn’t been the most spectacular. At the surface level, Taylor’s .294 wOBA and 84 wRC+ in 383 plate appearances isn’t eye popping by any measure. Furthermore, he still strikes out a whole lot (27.7 percent, which ranks him in the 14th percentile, according to Baseball Savant), and doesn’t walk nearly enough to make up for it (6.8 percent walk rate, which ranks him in the 22nd percentile). Nonetheless, Taylor has still been worth 1.3 fWAR this year, which is highest mark in this category since 2017, when he accumulated a 3.1 fWAR in 118 games with the Nationals.
Interestingly enough, Taylor has also been better than Benintendi and Santana combined, especially on a fWAR basis. Take a look at how their metrics fare when compared to one another on Fangraphs:
Now, when it comes to traditional statistics, Taylor pales in comparison to both Santana and Benintendi, though he fares better against Benintendi in some categories. While Taylor has a better OBP than Benintendi (going into Monday’s game), and he has as many stolen bases as both Santana and Benintendi combined, he still has the highest strikeout rate, lowest walk rate, and the highest BABIP as well, which suggests that Taylor has been a bit luckier than Santana and Benintendi in 2021.
That being said, Taylor looks a lot better when one takes into consideration how much Benintendi and Santana are being paid this year in comparison to Taylor. While Taylor is making nearly $1 million less than Greg Holland this year, Benintendi is making $6.6 million and Santana is making $7 million. And yet, Taylor, on a fWAR basis, is 0.7 wins better than both of them COMBINED. Thus, while Santana and Benintendi are arguably better offensive players than Taylor this year, Taylor has not just been a better defensive player (and considerably so), but also a better overall value than either Benintendi and Santana so far this season.
In addition, Taylor has showed some budding power, as his 10 home runs is his highest total since 2017, when he hit 19, and his max exit velocity ranks in the 80th percentile, which isn’t bad for a center fielder mostly known for his defense.
The last month has been particularly promising for Taylor, as he is posting a .300/.378/.425 slash in 46 plate appearances in August. While he has only one home run, he has walked three time and only struck out six times, a sign of better plate discipline which he has been developing over the past couple of months.
After striking out 38 times in May, Taylor saw his total strikeouts go down to 26 in June and 16 in July. Thus, the 30-year-old is showing better plate discipline, and it has produced a better approach at the plate which has yielded better results as well.
Here’s an example of Taylor working a 2-0 count against Yankees fireballer Stephen Ridings and roping a double to left-center as a result of being in a better hitter’s count:
Is Taylor going to be another LoCain in center field long term? Of course not. That being said, considering that the Royals got Taylor on a bargain, I think it’s safe to say that Royals fans should be satisfied with what Taylor has produced not just in the field, but at the bottom of the lineup as well.
It was widely though that the Royals would make a run for Jackie Bradley, Jr., as the latter played with Whit at the University of South Carolina. Bradley ended up signing a two-year, $24 million deal worth an AAV of $12 million with the Milwaukee Brewers instead.
Let’s compare Taylor and Bradley on a value end on Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see, Taylor has been worth nearly $10.3 million dollars on a WAR-to-Dollar end, which means that the Royals got nearly $8.5 million of surplus value on Taylor this year. As for Bradley? He’s been worth a deficit of $0.7 million on a WAR-to-Dollar end, which means that the Brewers have overpaid him by nearly $13 million dollars. Thus, while Taylor wasn’t the “hottest” name on the free agent market when it came to outfielders, it feels like Moore made the right decision when it came to signing Taylor to be the Royals’ starting center fielder in 2021.
However, should the Royals bring back Taylor for another year or two?
That will be a tough decision for Moore to make.
On defensive alone, I could see why it may be tempting for Moore to bring Taylor back. Taylor has been an elite defensive center fielder this year, and he has stayed healthy, which could bode well for him for 2022 and maybe 2023, since injuries have hindered him in the past. Furthermore, the Royals lack a premiere center field prospect in the upper levels of the farm system (though Dairon Blanco is certainly making his case in Northwest Arkansas), so Moore may be interested to trot out Taylor another year in center field at Kauffman Stadium, due to the lack of a successor waiting in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas.
Unfortunately, Taylor has been kind of lucky offensively, and his high strikeout rates, combined with a high BABIP, make a regression in 2022 likely. Furthermore, Taylor is currently 30 and will be 31-years-old in 2022. While Taylor has been a pleasant surprise, I am not sure if the Royals should dish out money to an outfielder of that age, especially when there are options like Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares on the 40-man roster. While they do not have Taylor’s defensive upside, they are younger options, and may have more offensive upside than Taylor as well (though who knows if either will get an extended chance in 2022).
Thus, the Royals should probably part ways with Taylor after this season, but it will be an interesting dilemma for the Royals and Moore this Winter. While the Royals probably won’t match any offers Taylor may get from other teams, it will be interesting to see what the Royals will do if Taylor doesn’t get signed initially. Will the Royals bring him back on a one-year, $3-4 million deal? Maybe two-years, $6-7 million?
That may be tougher for the Royals, and maybe even Taylor, to say no to…
Whatever happens this off-season, Royals fans should just enjoy Taylor and what he’s doing in Kansas City in 2021.
Because he’s definitely been a pleasant surprise in what otherwise has been a rough and disappointing season.
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