When the Royals acquired Drew Waters from the Atlanta Braves (along with infielder CJ Alexander and pitcher Andrew Hoffmann), it was a deal that went under the radar by most outside of Royals circles.
After all, Waters, once a top prospect in the Braves system back in 2020, had regressed a lot in terms of prospect ranking over the past couple of years. Also, his opportunities at the big league level seemed shot in Atlanta with the emergence of fellow centerfielder Michael Harris II, who was rewarded a multi-year extension after a solid rookie debut.
Thus, it seemed like the Royals were taking a risky flier in exchange for a compensation round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft.
However, the trade with the Braves has already panned out immensely in the Royals’ favor this season. Not only has Alexander proved to be a pleasant surprise in Double-A Northwest Arkansas (and Hoffmann could too with better pitching development next season), but Waters has proved that he could be a long-term option in the outfield for Kansas City as well.
In the Royals’ 7-1 win over the Cleveland Guardians on Saturday night, Waters not only went two-for-four at the dish but also hit his fourth home run of the year as well (including his first MLB home run from the right side of the plate).
Going into Sunday’s contest, Waters is currently slashing .253/.344/.506 with an OPS of .850 in 91 plate appearances with the Royals this year. And hence, many Royals fans may be asking this nagging question:
Does Waters make Gold-Glove winner Michael A. Taylor expendable, even with Taylor having one more year remaining on his extremely team-friendly deal in 2023?
If the Royals want to continue to make progress in the AL Central standings in 2023, especially in Picollo’s first full year without Dayton Moore, then this possibility may be more realistic than many Royals fans may think.
Now, Royals fans have to realize that Taylor has still been a tremendous value to this Royals organization over the past two seasons.
Since 2021, he has tied for third in Royals fWAR accumulation with a 3.6 mark (which ties him with Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield, with the latter currently in the Blue Jays organization).
Taylor’s 84 wRC+ and .251 average over the past two seasons do leave a bit to be desired. However, his 20.7 Def runs above average demonstrates that Taylor is one of the most valuable defensive outfielders in baseball today. In addition ranking 2nd in overall Def (behind only Nicky Lopez), according to Fangraphs, Taylor also ranks first in DRS and UZR of all Royals players over the past two seasons.
At the very least, Taylor has done a sterling job in terms of saving runs in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield grounds in 2021 and 2022, which isn’t exactly an easy task to do. The Royals failed to find someone who could fill the void in center field after Lorenzo Cain left Kansas City in 2017. Billy Hamilton, Bubba Starling, and Brett Phillips were all unable to fill in that position on an offensive and/or defensive end.
In fact, Taylor’s supreme instincts and athleticism have helped make him a human highlight reel of sorts, which was demonstrated in incredible defensive plays like this one against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium back in early May.
Unfortunately, though, while Taylor certainly has been worth his $4.5 million AAV due to his defense, his offense hasn’t quite matched his glove by any stretch of the imagination.
That is a big reason why Taylor has lost out on playing time in the Royals outfield over the past month of play, especially with Kansas City looking toward the future of this squad beyond 2022 and perhaps even 2023.
The second half of this season has not been kind to Taylor, as he has posted an OPS that is 88 points lower than his mark prior to the All-Star Break.
Since the call-up of Waters (which came on August 22nd), the 31-year-old centerfielder has seen a decline in plate appearances in the month of September. He has not just accumulated 22 fewer plate appearances in September in comparison to August, but his batting average and OPS in September are also 15 and 50 pints lower than his August marks, respectively, as well.
The Royals are looking to find the right pieces in this lineup long-term (i.e. over the next three-to-five years) that fit along with future Royals stars such as Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino, just to name a few (Michael Massey and Edward Olivares could be considered part of that group). And right now, Waters, who is only 23 years old, seems like a better fit with that group than Taylor, who will be a free agent after the 2023 season.
While depth should be certainly valued for the Royals in 2023 (one can never know with injuries), it would make sense for Picollo and the Royals front office to push for some kind of trade, especially since Taylor most likely won’t increase his trade value at any point next season.
As of Saturday evening, here is how Taylor and Waters compared in terms of metrics, via Fangraphs.
At the surface level, Taylor is not much worse, and in some cases, could be seen as a more “sure thing” than Waters.
While Taylor pales in comparison to Waters in terms of wRC+, wOBA, and ISO, he is posting an fWAR that is 1.4 wins higher than Waters, and an xWOBA that is 15 points higher as well.
Granted, Waters does a much better job than Taylor when it comes to drawing walks and hitting for power, but he does strike out considerably more (7.9 percent more to be specific). That “swing and miss” problem is not necessarily an encouraging sign for Waters and the Royals lineup in 2023, especially considering the strikeout tendencies of Royals hitters overall, which can be seen in the table below, via Fangraphs.
As one can see from the data above, not only does Waters have a higher K rate than Taylor, but Taylor also strikes out less than promising young Royals position players such as Nick Pratto, Nate Eaton, Massey, and Melendez.
Taylor is not a contact machine by any means (he has a career K rate of 29.4 percent). However, he has at least made some strides in his plate approach over the past season.
In fact, his 23.9 percent K rate is the lowest of his career, and his 0.33 BB/K ratio is the highest of his career as well, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, Taylor has come through in big moments as well, with his game-winning hit in early July against the Cleveland Guardians being a prime example.
One can certainly understand why the Royals may want to hold onto Taylor for the time being, which is why they hesitated from trading him at the August Trade Deadline, even though his name was drawing some considerable interest from other MLB clubs.
After all, he is making less than $5 million both this year and next, which is certainly a steal for a guy who could be a 1.5 to 2.0 fWAR player both this year and next. That being said, the Royals missed out on a key opportunity at the Trade Deadline to capitalize on his trade value, which probably will never be higher than it currently is at this moment.
And Picollo and the Royals cannot afford to make that mistake again.
While roster depth is certainly important, the Royals do have reinforcements lingering in Omaha, should the Royals decide to part ways with Taylor this winter.
Dairon Blanco posted an incredible stat line in 107 games this year, as he not only slashed .301/.367/.486, but he also hit 14 home runs, stole 45 bases, and played his best baseball at the conclusion of the 2022 season.
Brewer Hicklen also proved that he can be a possible backup outfielder in Kansas City in 2023 as well. While his MLB debut was underwhelming (much like Blanco), Hicklen posted a 123 wRC+ in 559 plate appearances in Omaha, and also produced 28 home runs and 35 stolen bases in 130 games with the Storm Chasers as well.
Strikeouts still remain a concern for Hicklen (he struck out 36.1 percent of the time in Omaha). Even in his brief MLB debut this year, his contact issues seemed to manifest immensely against MLB pitching. On the other hand, his power, speed, and defensive tools at the very least make him an intriguing fourth outfielder in Kansas City next Spring and maybe beyond.
Both players, though certainly flawed and unlikely to be MLB starters, should make Taylor expendable as soon as next season.
The need to trade Taylor is further confirmed by the potential development of Kyle Isbel, who could be a possible starter with some work with Drew Saylor this offseason, in addition to the emergence of Waters over the past month. Waters deserves to be the Royals’ 2023 Opening Day starter in center field, especially considering his age and power upside. He needs to be part of that important position player core plan going forward along with Witt, Melendez, Pasquantino, and Massey.
Though Taylor could be a utility outfield type for the Royals next year, he would be better off in another organization next Spring, with the Royals getting a couple of prospects in return, even if they may be of low-level caliber.
There is no question that Taylor has held down the fort in centerfield in Kansas City over the past two seasons.
The Royals took a huge risk on him in free agency back in the winter of 2020, and he certainly has surpassed his contract value on his defense alone.
For an organization that has struggled to find “productive” position player free agents since 2018 (Billy Hamilton and Carlos Santana are particular disappointments), Royals fans can at least say that Taylor was a rare Royals free agent “success” story over the past five seasons.
But all good things need to come to an end…
And the end of Taylor’s time in Kansas City should mean the blossoming of Water’s tenure in Kansas City’s outfield for years to come.
This should be a win-win for not just Waters, but Taylor, who could hopefully continue his career turnaround in another organization (and perhaps a more playoff-ready one) next season.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports