Nationals need Michael Taylor to produce in Jayson Werth’s absence

With Jayson Werth out until August, the Washington Nationals are going to need fielder Michael Taylor to produce at major league levels despite his lack of time in the minors to work on his development.
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By Ian Cassellberry

The Washington Nationals have already been without Jayson Werth since May 19, when he went on the disabled list with a wrist injury. But the outfielder is going to be out for much longer, after a MRI exam discoveredtwo small fractures in his left wrist. Werth is now expected to be sidelined until August, leaving the Nats without one of their most productive hitters during the past three seasons.

But will the Nationals truly miss Werth over the next two months? He hasn’t provided much production so far this season, batting .208 with a .581 OPS. Werth’s .287 slugging percentage is particularly troubling, likely an indication that he was still inhibited by the right shoulder injury that kept him out until mid-April.

However, Werth’s performance during his last five games seemed to demonstrate that he was regaining his timing and power. Before going on the DL, he was 5-for-17 with a home run and four RBI. There’s no good time for an injury to occur, of course, but Werth’s wrist issues came just as he appeared to be turning his season around and once again making a meaningful contribution to the Nats as the team finally began playing up to expectations.

Fortunately for Washington, general manager Mike Rizzo built a deep roster for a 2015 run. Going into the season, I wrote that the Nationals would be able to sustain an early number of injuries — which included Werth — because of that depth. Two months later, that still applies. The Nats were arguably in a worse spot in early April with both Werth and center fielder Denard Span out of the lineup. But as Michael Taylor was available to fill one of those openings back then, the team’s top position prospect is on hand now to replace Werth.

Though Taylor’s .224 batting average and .677 OPS show that he’s still a work in progress, the 24-year-old has arguably been a more productive player than Werth this season with four home runs, four doubles and four stolen bases. Now, he gets an opportunity to build on his early performance. Factor in Taylor’s defense and he’s provided additional value to the Nats’ lineup.

Werth has cost Washington nearly four runs more than the average MLB left fielder, charged with -5 Defensive Runs Saved. As a natural center fielder, you’d expect Taylor to be a more athletic and capable defender in the outfield, and advanced metrics bear that out. Most of his playing time has been in center field, where he’s been above-average (despite costing the team -5 DRS). But in left field, Taylor has saved two more runs than a replacement-level player. With him, Span and Bryce Harper manning the outfield, the Nationals are a better defensive team.

Span has once again been dealing with an injury after hurting his right knee last week and aggravated the pain in his patella tendon on Sunday (May 31). Doctors found no structural damage, and the plan was to rest Span for Monday’s series opener versus the Blue Jays. The game was rained out, so the center fielder got a break anyway. Besides straining the Nationals’ roster depth even further, Span’s absence would take his .314 average and .859 OPS out of the lineup. Only Harper (obviously) and Danny Espinosa (barely) have been more valuable thus far.

But if Span is relatively healthy and still able to play, the Nats only have to worry about whether or not Taylor can replace Werth for the next two months (or more). In May, he batted .185 with a .581 OPS and 21 strikeouts in 60 plate appearances. That performance is likely viewed as a disappointment, considering how highly regarded Taylor has been as a prospect and the fact that he’ll almost certainly replace Span as Washington’s everyday center fielder next year.

Realistically, however, Taylor probably needed a full season at Triple-A — or at least regular playing time — to be better prepared for the majors. Though he finished last year with Syracuse, Taylor spent most of the season with Double-A Harrisburg. His .313 average and .935 OPS in 98 games showed he was ready for a promotion. Taylor struggled in his brief stint in Triple-A, batting .227 with 14 strikeouts in 12 games, but that’s not much of a sample size to properly judge.

Nationals manager Matt Williams does have other options to consider if Taylor doesn’t improve with regular playing time. The team has already been trying a platoon of Tyler Moore and Clint Robinson in left field, but the two might not provide much of an offensive upgrade and will almost certainly be a downgrade defensively. Matt den Dekker could also be considered, but his .230 average and .589 OPS at Triple-A isn’t making him much of a possibility.

If neither of that foursome looks appealing by late July and Werth’s recovery isn’t promising, Rizzo could explore a trade. In that scenario, the Red Sox might get a call if Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava have healed from their current injuries. Would the Nationals even consider taking on the Allen Craig reclamation project? Probably not, unless Boston eats some of the $25 million remaining on his contract through 2017. Since Werth is signed until then (and owed around $55 million), that seems very doubtful.

Maybe the Indians would try to interest the Nats in Ryan Raburn or David Murphy. (Cleveland would surely love to unload Nick Swisher, but the Nats aren’t taking on his contract.) Gerardo Parra of the Brewers is another possibility. The Cubs might be willing to part with Chris Coghlan. And if the Padres fall out of contention, perhaps Will Venable is someone to consider. Each of those players would be the short-term solution Rizzo likely prefers, either as a replacement or to provide depth.

But again, the Nats would probably only look in this direction if Taylor continues to struggle and Werth’s wrist doesn’t heal as projected. (And even if that wrist heals, that’s typically a difficult injury to bounce back from, in terms of regaining bat speed and power.)

For now, Washington seems well-equipped to deal with the situation. It’s entirely possible that Taylor could even be an improvement, with Moore and Robinson available to help when needed. This is the roster Rizzo built and it’s still early enough in the season that he can afford to see if it works as planned (albeit in case of injury). There’s no need to react — let alone overreact — to developments that could work out in the Nationals’ favor.

 

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