Nationals will spread the wealth when it comes to outfield playing time
When Denard Span left in free agency, the Nationals appeared poised to install the homegrown Michael Taylor as their new primary center fielder, stomaching a boatload of strikeouts to enjoy his excellent defense and electric power/speed profile. Then, in early January, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Ben Revere from the Blue Jays, bumping Taylor back into the fourth-outfielder role he served in last year.
Being a fourth outfielder in Washington carries plenty of responsibility these days. For Taylor, it meant appearing in 138 games and coming to the plate 511 times, the product of injuries to Span and Jayson Werth. The former is gone now, but the latter remains as the primary left fielder, a spot for which Revere might be better-suited considering his feeble arm. Revere’s range will keep him in center when Werth and Bryce Harper are the flankers, but when Werth hits the shelf or needs a day off, first-year manager Dusty Baker will have several ways to arrange his outfield.
Werth’s fragility, Revere’s limited profile, and even Harper’s past injury woes—which subsided to enable his 11.2 WARP outburst—could all conspire to make Taylor the league’s most important fourth outfielder. In fact, Baker told MASN’s Mark Zuckerman that he anticipates around 400 plate appearances for Taylor in 2016, with the caveat that it’s difficult to chart every mile of the long road ahead. Clint Robinson, a much better hitter than Taylor in 2015, with a .272/.358/.424 slash line in 352 trips, is another candidate to see substantial outfield time, but he can’t play center and might be needed to spell Ryan Zimmerman at first base.
So, Baker will lean on Taylor, who turns 25 on March 26th and was just a 0.9 WARP player last year in spite of his +5.1 FRAA contributions in the field. Fourteen homers and 16 steals tickled fantasy owners who scooped Taylor up late in their drafts or off the in-season waiver wire, but they did little to spruce up a .229/.282/.358 triple-slash that amounted to a .240 TAv. A right-handed hitter, Taylor didn’t do markedly better when facing southpaws last year, so the platoon advantage doesn’t appear to be a remedy for his hit-tool deficiency. The Nationals will have to hope that additional exposure to big-league pitching can help Taylor to cut some of the swing-and-miss out of his game.
Fifth-starter spot up for grabs in Arizona … maybe
The signing of Zack Greinke and the trade acquisition of Shelby Miller solidified the front end of the Diamondbacks’ rotation, pushing Patrick Corbin down the totem pole to no. 3. Heading into spring training, manager Chip Hale named Rubby De La Rosa as his fourth starter. So now, the only question is who’ll be his no. 5.
Three contenders are poised to figure into that Cactus League competition, led by Robbie Ray, who came over from the Tigers in the three-way trade that send Didi Gregorius to the Yankees in December 2014. The 24-year-old Ray seemingly pitched well enough in 23 starts to secure that job, as his 5-12 record obscured a very solid 3.52 ERA, 119-to-49 K:BB ratio, and only nine homers allowed in 127 2/3 innings, 55 1/3 of them in the perilous confines of Chase Field. Ray wasn’t quite as good as those surface numbers might suggest, with a 4.10 DRA painting him as more of a fourth starter than a frontline arm, and his 97 cFIP portends only slightly above-average performance to come. Still, in most cases, that’d be good enough to assure a young starter of his slot in the Opening Day rotation.
Not for these Diamondbacks, though. As Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic wrote Sunday, while Hale acknowledged that Ray is the favorite coming in, if the southpaw wants to keep his job, he’s going to have to at least hold serve next month. If he doesn’t, the D’backs could look to top prospect Archie Bradley or Zack Godley, a 25-year-old who came over from the Cubs in the Miguel Montero trade midyear.
Godley surpassed expectations upon arrival in the desert, continuing a meteoric rise that saw him conquer High-A Visalia, Double-A Mobile, and ultimately a majority of the major-league lineups he faced. In nine games, six of them starts, Godley racked up a 34-to-17 K:BB ratio in 36 2/3 innings, good for a small-sample 4.26 DRA. Some regression is to be expected, but the Diamondbacks might’ve yanked a useful fifth starter or swingman away from the Cubs, the type of pitcher who’s appreciated over the grind of a long season even if his Opening Day role isn’t well defined.
Then there’s Bradley, who was supposed to have locked up a spot in the Arizona rotation long ago, but has hit numerous bumps on the road to that destination. Now 23, Bradley was shaky in a brief exposure to big-league competition last year, issuing 22 walks compared to just 23 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings while missing time with a shoulder injury and after taking a line drive off his face. He showed no such control trouble in the minors, but would probably benefit from time there to regain his bearings before his second major-league trial.
Despite this being billed as a competition, the smart money here is on Ray retaining the job.