The Royals brought in Michael A. Taylor in 2021 and made him a starter despite him sliding into a reserve role in Washington at that point in his career. It was a low-cost option, and the Royals liked what he could do defensively as they were trying to develop a pitching staff and could use a ballhawk in the outfield.
On that front, Taylor has been worth every penny. He led all outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating and tied Adam Duvall for the lead in Defensive Runs Saved last year. That defensive prowess earned him his first Gold Glove award at age 30.
Taylor wasn’t much with the bat last year, which was to be expected. Despite a career-high 528 plate appearances, he hit just .244/.297/.356, and his wRC+ of 77 was the fifth-lowest among qualified hitters. Those numbers were pretty much in line with what he had done in seven seasons in Washington, where he was a low-walk, high-strikeout hitter who could hit for some power on occasion. Despite his offensive inabilities, he was worth 2 WAR, according to Fangraphs, making him the 30th-most valuable outfielder in the American League. The Royals decided to retain him by signing him to a two-year, $9 million contract extension.
With his new deal in hand, Taylor has responded by becoming a positive force with his bat as well as his glove. It is still early in the season, but through 49 games Taylor is hitting .269/.348/.391, and his 114 wRC+ would be the highest of his career. He has increased his walk rate significantly while cutting down on the strikeouts.
Taylor talked to beat writer Anne Rogers about his offensive improvements.
When asked about it, Taylor said he’s seeing the ball better and more consistently than he has before in his career, which allows him to make better decisions. He shortened his swing, too, with new pregame drills he added in Spring Training that have given him more time at the plate.
“The goal was to make more contact,” Taylor said. “I felt like I’d miss a lot of pitches, I’d foul a lot of balls off and put myself in a bad situation with two strikes, then I’m just battling from there. And that would lead to way more strikeouts than I wanted.”
His metrics have gone down a bit, although it is too early to tell if that is a drop in performance or small sample size noise. Either way, he is still a plus defender by some metrics, ranking fifth in Defensive Runs Saved this year.
With Taylor still under contract through the 2023 season, would the Royals consider trading him? His offensive performance may be a bit of a mirage or at least a temporary hot streak. He is 31 years old, and defense tends to decline sharply after age 30. The Royals might be wise to cash in while he is performing.
On the other hand, the Royals tend not to be very “transactional”, rarely dealing players at the trade deadline unless they are impending free agents. The Royals do not have an obvious candidate pushing Taylor out of a job in centerfielder, although Kyle Isbel warrants more playing time in the outfield. They may like his defense in centerfield as they try to develop young pitchers.
If they did shop him, what kind of return could they expect? There aren’t a lot of defense-first outfielders with Taylor’s age and profile, but perhaps the closest example is when the Reds traded Adam Duvall to the Braves in 2018. The then-29-year-old Duvall was a solid defender by the metrics with some good power, but was hitting just .205/.286/.399 at the time of the deal.
The Reds received outfielder Preston Tucker, and pitchers Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler. Sims and Wisler were both former top 100 prospects who had not impressed in their big league careers through age 25, and Tucker was a 27-year-old reserve outfielder. There are some differences between him and Taylor however, in that Duvall had a better track record than Taylor - he had been an All-Star in 2016 - and that he had three more years of club control, while the Royals have just one more year with Taylor. Still, the deals can be a useful guidepost. The Royals could probably expect to get 1-2 young players who were once prospects but have not performed, not unlike the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018 that netted them Jorge Lopez and Brett Phillips.
There should be several suitors for Taylor’s services if he’s made available. The Yankees - who have lapped the field in the American League - have made defense a priority with this year’s club and could use a ballhawk in center, where Aaron Hicks is no longer a defensive plus. The Dodgers were seeking a right-handed bat to go with Eddy Alvarez while Mookie Betts is out with injury. They acquired Trayce Thompson from the Tigers, but he may not be the answer. The Brewers are seeking a centerfield option after letting Lorenzo Cain go. The Marlins, Braves, and Phillies all may be seeking outfield help and could use a plus defender.
The Taylor signing has worked out for the Royals so far, but they have had a troubling history of taking good transactions and failing to capitalize on them. Taylor has performed well, but that performance may not last, and the Royals could use more young talent in their rebuild.