As I have discussed on this blog before, Michael A. Taylor has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Kansas City Royals in 2021. Signed on a paltry one-year, $1.75 million deal this past offseason, Taylor has emerged as the Royals’ everyday center fielder, as he has played in 137 games and accumulated 508 plate appearances, going into Wednesday’s contest against the Cleveland Indians.
On an offensive end, Taylor hasn’t been anything special. While his 79 wRC+ would be his highest mark at the Major League level since 2017 (when he posted a 104 wRC+ in 118 games with the Washington Nationals), it is actually the second-worst wRC+ of qualified center fielders, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, despite his stellar sprint speed (which ranks in the 79th percentile, according to Baseball Savant), he has only stolen 14 bases on 20 attempts, and accumulated only 0.5 baserunning runs (BsR), according to Fangraphs.
That being said, Taylor has been an ELITE defensive player for the Royals, and that especially shows in the defensive metrics.
For the season, Taylor leads all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved (21) and UZR (12.7), according to Fangraphs. On Statcast’s Outs Above Average mark? His 14 OAA is tied for tops in the league with Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot and St. Louis’ Harrison Bader. On a fielding end, Taylor has been the Royals’ best defensive outfielder since Lorenzo Cain, which is high praise considering the impact Cain had in Kansas City from 2012 through 2017.
Thus, with the desire to beat the market to the punch, and Taylor a perfect fit in Kauffman’s Stadium’s spacious outfield grounds, it is not a surprise that Royals president Dayton Moore and general manager JJ Picollo acted quickly, and inked Taylor to a two-year extension, as announced by the club today:
According to reports, the deal is a pretty modest one, as Taylor is due to make $9 million total over the next two seasons (2022 and 2023). For context, Taylor, according to Fangraphs, has been worth 1.9 fWAR, which would equate to about $15.3 million dollars in value this year (with most of his value being tied to the center field position). So, based on that precedent, even if Taylor regresses a little at the plate (or even slightly in the field), it is very likely that Taylor will out-produce what the Royals will pay him in 2022 and 2023, even if it is a $3 million pay bump on an AAV (average annual value) end.
On a financial end, the Taylor moves makes sense, and was probably a smart move, just to prevent the market from out-bidding the Royals this Winter.
But on the field, did the Royals make the right call in deciding to roll out with Taylor as the Royals’ starting center fielder in 2022 and maybe 2023?
One of the big issues that probably expedited the Royals’ front office’s decision to extend Taylor was due to the fact there is a lack of depth at center field in the Royals farm system. As talented as Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares are, it doesn’t seem like the Royals are all that confident that either outfielder could be a full time option in center field (though they certainly got their opportunities at the position, especially down the stretch). Outside of those two, there is Dairon Blanco, who was acquired from the Athletics in the 2019 Jake Diekman trade. In 2021, he showed some flashes of potential in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, but he’s 28-years-old, and hadn’t played above Double-A until this year.
And after those three? Well the pickings are slim, and/or far away from making their way to Kansas City.
Hence, from a “trying to compete” end, Taylor is the safest and most reasonable decision in center field. He may not be much better at the plate in 2022 and 2023, especially as he turns 31 and 32-years-old in the next two seasons, respectively. But at the very least, Taylor is going to to provide sensational defense in center field, which isn’t easy to do at the Major League level, especially at Kauffman Stadium, which can be an adventure for outfielders with either poor instincts or skill sets.
Taylor is not a “sexy” fit in center field for Royals fans hoping for more at this position in 2022, especially fans who are hoping that Kansas City could sign Starling Marte in free agency (which honestly is a pipe dream, even with an owner in John Sherman who appears more prone to spend than David Glass). However, Taylor brings consistency, dependability, and has impressed Royals fans and management with some incredible tools in center field in 2021.
Take a look at his box plot via Baseball Savant, and check out how much ground Taylor has covered from this past season:
On a personal end, Taylor’s 14 outs above average this year is a career-high, which could be a sign that Taylor is a late bloomer who needed a change of scenery after struggling to get consistent playing time in Washington, especially in the wake of Victor Robles’ call up. While Robles is much younger than Taylor (Robles is still 24-years-old), Taylor outperformed his former Nationals position rival this season on not just a fielding end (0 DRS, -0.5 UZR), but even offensively as well (Robles posted a 66 wRC+, according to Fangraphs).
In 2020, Taylor posted an OAA of 1. In 2019, his OAA was only 2. This season, he posted a double-digit OAA that showcased that he was one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, which could result in him earning a Gold Glove.
If this season was Taylor’s defensive breakout in Kansas City, perhaps the Royals are banking that 2022 will be Taylor’s offensive emergence, which further justifies the extension they gave him today.
Taylor definitely plays younger than his age, as his athleticism still shines on the diamond even though he’s at an age where most players are starting to deteriorate. In addition, he will have set a new record this year for games played in a single season in his career, which is another good sign that Taylor could build on this promising 2021 campaign (the most games he played prior to 2021 was 138, which he tied today). While Taylor does strike out a lot (27.2 percent), he has at least stabilized that rate the past two years, as his K rate this year and last year (27.3) is down from his marks in 2019 (35.1 percent) and 2018 (30.1 percent).
Additionally, Taylor also has the ability to utilize the gaps at Kauffman Stadium, as well as hit it out of the park on occasion, as demonstrated in a September game against the Mariners in Kansas City:
Perhaps Taylor can continue to make adjustments this offseason (like he did prior to 2020 and 2021) and build on his 39.5 percent hard hit rate, which would be the second-best mark in that category in his career, according to Savant. That doesn’t mean that Taylor will suddenly be a Jorge Soler or even a 2015-ish Lorenzo Cain. But perhaps a 2012 LoCain, which produced a .266/.316/.419 line?
I think Royals fans can deal with that kind of triple-slash production for $4.5 million a year, especially with Taylor’s defense.
And I think the Royals will be happy with that kind of .735-.750 OPS production as well.
Taylor is a safe move for the Royals in center field in 2022. The Royals’ playoff chances will not be made or broken on this signing.
But continued elite defense from Taylor and perhaps a slight improvement at the plate in 2022, thanks to more at-bats and experience from this past season?
Well…that certainly won’t hurt the Royals’ playoff chances next year.
Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel | AP