After being ranked as one of the best prospects in the Washington Nationals organization prior to the start of the season, outfielder Michael Taylor refuses to let the hype affect him.
By Hunter Woodall
It was a defensive play Nationals prospect Michael Taylor knew he could make.
Taylor threw the ball over his shoulder without a second glance after it one-hopped off the outfield wall. He thought he’d be able to make a play with his improbable throw, but instead the ball careened 300 feet in the air. Looking back, he says it was one of the worst plays he had made at that point in his minor league career.
“I was rushing, trying to do too much,” Taylor says. “The guys got on me for that one.”
The play was made during Taylor’s time playing for the Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals’ Class A affiliate in Maryland, where Taylor had a breakout season last year. After struggling on the Suns at the end of the 2010 season, Taylor hit .253 with 13 home runs, 68 RBIs and 23 stolen bases during his first full season with the team, earning him a promotion following the season.
Regarded as one of the best position players in the Washington Nationals’ minor league system, Taylor has seen his stock rise in four years from well-regarded high school athlete to becoming part of the major league team’s future. MLB.com ranked him as the third-best prospect in the Nationals system as part of its 2012 prospect watch, saying for Taylor, “Patience is the key and the payoff could be huge.”
Taylor will spend his third professional season as a member of the Potomac Nationals, the area’s minor league baseball team just 30 miles from the major league team’s stadium.
“He’s making good strides,” Potomac Nationals manager Brian Rupp says. “He’s becoming more fearless as an outfielder. He’s not afraid to make plays, not afraid to leave his feet, dive (to) catch the ball.”
Seven different major league teams have been affiliated with the club since its inaugural season in 1978. The Cincinnati Reds had control of the Potomac affiliate from 2003 to 2004 prior to the Washington Nationals signing a contract with the club when it moved to D.C. in 2005. Players ranging from all-time home run leader Barry Bonds to former New York Yankees great Bernie Williams have occupied the same outfield Taylor now calls home. Taylor hopes his name can one day be included with the list of Potomac alumni who made it in the major leagues. Taylor however, is focused on the present. At 21 years old, he’s the youngest position player on the Potomac Nationals.
Major League Comparisons
At 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, both Taylor’s hitting coach and manager at Potomac say he has time to improve on his already athletic frame. Hitting Coach Marlon Anderson compared him favorably to all-star center fielder Tori Hunter.
“Because (Hunter) grew so much, they didn’t know what type of player he was going to be,” Anderson says. “(Taylor) hasn’t quite grown into his body, so he has the potential to get bigger and be a center fielder or the potential to grow a little bit bigger and be a corner outfielder. You never know right now, at such a young age (with) so much talent.”
Growing up, Taylor idolized New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Even after being drafted by the Nationals, he still looks up to Jeter as a player.
Rupp says Taylor reminds him of another famous New York Yankee, all-star third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
“He’s like an A-Rod to me,” Rupp says. “When A-Rod came up he was kind of a tall, lanky kid and obviously filled out. That’s the body type I see [in Taylor]. If he keeps working offensively, he’s going to have a chance to hit some homers and hit a lot of doubles. He can run, too and so could A-Rod when he was young. I see a lot of similarities in their games.”
Playing in Potomac, Taylor has learned from major league players rehabilitating from injuries throughout the season.
Major league players Chris Marrero, Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse have all played with the team this year to recover from spring training injuries.
“I don’t think it’s a distraction or anything at all,” Taylor says. “It’s actually kind of nice because you get to see a lot of the big leaguers when they have to rehab.”
Morse also worked out with Taylor in the off season, helping Taylor refine his game in preparation for the 2012 season.
“Just being around him has helped a lot,” Taylor says.
A Westminster Star
As a kid, Taylor played football, baseball and basketball. In high school, he also ran track for two seasons but stopped because it began to interfere with baseball. Despite the fact that his dad played basketball, Taylor’s interest in baseball always persevered.
“My dad was a basketball player, so he pushed that,” Taylor says. “For some reason baseball just kind of stuck with me.”
Taylor attributes his success in baseball to how he was raised by his parents. His father served in the military for 22 years, and his mother served for 17 years. Taylor says being brought up by a military family has helped him in his professional career.
“They really instilled discipline, good work ethic and respect in me,” Taylor says.
A high school baseball product from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Taylor was drafted in the Sixth round of the 2009 first -year player draft out of Westminster Academy. He was the first player from Broward County to be selected in the draft. The only other two players drafted straight out of high school from Broward County, Dane Williams and Deven Marrero, opted to go to North Carolina State and Arizona State, respectively.
Since graduating from Westminster, Taylor has stayed in touch with several of the high school’s alumni, including Matt Den Dekker, an outfielder from the University of Florida currently in the New York Mets organization, as well as outfielder Kyle Robinson, a 2011 draft pick out of the University of Arkansas currently in the White Sox organization.
Taylor, who played at Westminster with Robinson for two years says the two have talked about their shared experiences as minor league baseball players.
“The minor leagues (are) kind of the same everywhere you go,” Taylor says. “We share stories and stuff like that.”
Eight other players from Westminster have played in the minor leagues since 1992, but none have made it to the major leagues according to baseball-reference.com. Taylor passed up a full scholarship from the University of North Florida to sign with the Nationals organization on June 15, 2009 for a signing bonus of $125,000.
“I knew professional baseball was something that I wanted to play,” Taylor said. “I talked with my family and we decided that if I got that opportunity that I would go for it. School will always be there, so I just basically wanted to jump (on the) opportunity.”
In November, Baseball America ranked Taylor as the best overall athlete in the Nationals minor league system, as well as the best defensive outfielder. That’s high praise for a 21-year-old who transitioned to the outfield a little less than two years ago.
“I really just try to be as aggressive as possible,” Taylor says. “Basically play all out, but still try and be smart on the bases and on the field. Just going after everything and playing 100 percent.”
Since being promoted to Potomac to start the season, Taylor has hit .234 with no home runs, 26 RBIs and 13 steals.
“I think he will have some power numbers by the end of this (season),” Rupp says. “I think he’s learning to become a little bit of a better hitter right now, and sometimes you take that step back before you can go forward. I think he’s on his way forward. He’s had to make a few adjustments.”
Despite his power numbers dropping after his promotion, Taylor’s on-base percentage has risen from .310 to .324.
“I’m just trying to do the same thing (I did last season) and it’s taken me awhile to find it again,” he says. “I’m just trying to relax at the plate and be as comfortable as I can.”
Anderson also worked with Taylor last season and has helped him as he has advanced through the minor league system.
“He’ll get some outs, he’ll go through some slumps,” Anderson says. “But then he’ll make some adjustments and come out of it. He’s right where I expect him to be.”
The Path Ahead of Him
Originally drafted as a shortstop, Taylor began to make his transition to the outfield during the instructional league season in 2010.
“I put everything I had into it,” Taylor said. “Tony Tarasco helped me a lot when I first made the switch.”
Tarasco, a minor league coordinator for the Washington Nationals, has helped athletes like Taylor make position changes to advance their careers. Tarasco most recently helped the Nationals top prospect Bryce Harper transition from playing catcher to the outfield.
The move was made to help Taylor improve his chances of making the major league team in the future, as well as help the Nationals with stability in center field. Since coming to Washington in 2005, the major league squad has started 47 different players in center field, according to the Baseball Almanac.
“After the move (to center field), it helped me refocus and gave me a little more drive,” Taylor says.
Taylor is also well-regarded within the Nationals organization for his speed. During the first month of the season, Taylor was caught stealing six times in eight attempts. Since then, he’s only been caught once, stealing 11 bases in the process.
“I think when I first came out I was a little too anxious,” he says. “I kind of ran around with my head cut off for a little bit, trying to steal a hundred bags. (Now I’m) settling in and basically taking what the defense gives me instead of trying to steal every base.”
While his power numbers have decreased, Taylor is fifth in the Carolina League with 22 doubles.
“Right now, I don’t really know (why the numbers are down),” Taylor says. “I just focus on wanting to hit the ball hard, and if I miss it, hopefully it will carry out. I just want to square the ball and drive it.”
Before games, Taylor will take to the field to practice each area of his game. He’ll work on leads from bases and on jumps to improve his stealing ability. He’ll go to the batting cage to get some extra swings in before games, and almost every day Taylor’s the first player at the stadium, ready to practice.
Rupp says Taylor has a high work ethic that will start showing on the field sooner rather than later.
“He’s doing something all the time to try and make himself a little bit better,” Rupp says. “The kid puts the time and effort in.”
A season that could have propelled Taylor to the next level, the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, has instead left Taylor slumping at the plate and redefining his approach.
“I really try to just focus on the details and do the best I can out there,” Taylor says. “I don’t really focus on the accolades and titles.”
Instead of letting the slump get to him, Taylor says he’s focusing on improving day by day.
“Right now, I’m worried about the Potomac Nationals,” he says.
(June 28, 2012)