At the end of September last year, as the season was winding down, Michael A. Taylor was about a week away from hitting free agency. The Royals, however, were determined to prevent that from happening and gave him a $9MM extension that would keep him around for another two years.
Taylor has never really done too much with his bat, finishing the 2021 season with a career batting line of .239/.293/.386 for a wRC+ of just 79. But the Royals were surely motivated to lock him up because of his tremendous defense. Taylor ended up finishing first among MLB center fielders in the Fielding Bible’s voting for 2021. His 15 Outs Above Average last year were the second-most in all of baseball, trailing only Manuel Margot’s 16. His 19 Defensive Runs Saved were also second in the league, trailing only the 20 racked up by Carlos Correa. His 13.3 Ultimate Zone Rating was easily the best, well ahead of Matt Chapman’s 8.7.
Kansas City making defense a priority made sense for a couple of reasons. First, the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium make it so that defense is always important for the team. Secondly, the rebuilding club was set to feature a number of young and inexperienced pitchers, making any extra outs very important for building confidence and limiting workloads.
However, Taylor has bucked his career trends in a couple of ways here in 2022. For one thing, he’s having easily the best year of his career in terms of his bat. Through 47 games, he’s got an 11.2% walk rate, a great improvement over his 7% career mark. Similarly, he’s striking out in 22.4% of his plate appearances, well below his 29.9% career rate. That’s helped him produce a batting line of .272/.355/.401, which amounts to a wRC+ of 119. Prior to this year, Taylor’s wRC+ has been 80 or below in every season except for a 104 back in 2017.
But on the other hand, his defense doesn’t seem to be quite as elite as last year, at least in the eyes of the advanced metrics. OAA currently has him at 1 for the season, DRS at 3 and UZR at -0.2. Defensive metrics are notoriously fickle, meaning it’s possible that this is just small sample noise. Though Taylor is also 31 years old now, making it possible that 2021 was a peak that he’s started to come down from.
The Royals have a record of 23-42, one of the worst in the league, lining them up to be clear sellers at this year’s trade deadline. Taylor doesn’t absolutely have to be traded since his contract goes through 2023. The Royals could keep him around for another year and hope that they have better luck next year in their attempts to transition from rebuilding to contending. But there’s also an argument to be made that Taylor’s value is at its peak. He’s never been hitting anywhere near this level before and there’s a chance his excellent defensive skills have started to wane.
There’s also the possibility that two months of improved results with the bat won’t compel any team to part with significant prospects that would entice the Royals to pull a trigger on a trade. But then again, teams in search of help in center field don’t have a lot of options. Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds have been constantly in trade rumors over the past year, but their respective teams have apparently been steadfast in maintaining high asking prices in any trade discussions. The Marlins have reportedly been making a strong push for Ramon Laureano, but without successfully getting the A’s to budge thus far. There aren’t many options beyond that group that are both exciting and available.
Coupled with that low supply is strong demand. The Marlins have been trying to upgrade in center field for a long time but without finding a deal to their liking. The Brewers just cut ties with Lorenzo Cain, leaving them with Tyrone Taylor and Jonathan Davis as their center field tandem. Cody Bellinger has rebounded from his nightmare 2021 but is still having a below-average season at the plate. The Astros and Phillies are getting okay results this year from Chas McCormick and Odubel Herrera, respectively, but could still look to supplement there. Perhaps the Yankees will look to bump Aaron Judge back into a corner outfield role to reduce his daily wear and tear. There’s also the possibility some team that doesn’t strictly need a center fielder just wants one to give their regular outfielders some occasional down time.
The Royals will have a decision to make between now and the August 2 trade deadline. Do they hang onto Taylor for another year or try to cash him in for some prospects while his value is high? Even if they lean towards the former option, it’s possible that the market forces push some team into making them an offer that makes them change their mind.