Outfield depth looked like a position of strength in the early stages of spring training. Adam Eaton was finally healthy, after spending most of 2018 either on the disabled list or hobbled following an ankle injury, and the Nationals had three young outfielders that they had extreme confidence in entering the season. But then tragedy struck.
Uh oh, Michael A. Taylor is down after making a diving catch in right-center. Looked like he caught a spike in the turf. Back up on feet now as trainer and Davey come running out to check on him.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) March 14, 2019
Michael A. Taylor suffered a sprained knee and hip, and is expected to miss an extended period of time. There’s no official word on how long that will be, but his availability for Opening Day is very much in doubt. Combine that with uncertainty surrounding the availability of Howie Kendrick, who could help in left field, and this becomes Washington’s first glaring hole in the field.
Not only is sending Victor Robles to AAA until June no longer an option, but it also challenges Washington’s outfield depth significantly. As it stands, Andrew Stevenson would be the fourth outfielder, although Dave Martinez is experimenting with other players.
Martinez also acknowledged the Nats are short on OF depth behind Taylor. That’s why Matt Adams is playing LF today and Wilmer Difo will play LF/CF the next few days.
— Jamal Collier (@JamalCollier) March 15, 2019
If either player will be out for more than a month—particularly Taylor—an outside body is likely necessary, and the Nationals have reportedly at least begun to kick the tires on acquiring one.
Nats suggest they’ll likely stay in house with Michael Taylor (knee, hip) out a month or more. But they do appear to be at least considering outside alternatives who can play some cf. remaining free agents include ex-Nat Denard Span and Austin Jackson.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 16, 2019
Denard Span is 35 years old and predominantly a left fielder now, but he still recorded an OPS+ of 112—well above average—last season, and can still play center periodically. He wouldn’t be the player the Nationals had earlier this decade, but he could serve as a backup to Robles, while also giving Juan Soto and Adam Eaton days off (and fill in for Eaton, should that need ever arise).
Austin Jackson is a more natural fit defensively, but his bat comes and goes from year to year. Two of his last three seasons have been well below average in that regard, but he recorded an impressive .318/.387/.482 slash line with the Indians in 2017. Given his struggles from the plate last season, he would likely be very affordable, and the ability to use him as the fourth outfielder would put him in much more favorable situations than being an everyday player did.
Carlos Gonzalez had also been floated as an option, but he signed a minor league deal with Cleveland on Saturday. Even if he was available, adding him would have been contingent upon whether Martinez had confidence in Adam Eaton in center field, which he hasn’t shown up until now.
There are also some intriguing options that could be on the trade market, or simply available after roster cuts.
Some out-of-options OFs who could make sense for the Nats as a MAT replacement:
— Andrew Flax (@AndrewFlaxTNB) March 15, 2019
All three players appear to be facing uphill battles to make their respective rosters. The additions of Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen relegate Aaron Altherr to the Phillies’ fifth outfielder, at best. Dalton Pompey might be the most true center fielder of the three, but his bat has recently betrayed him, leading to him falling out of favor in Toronto.
The top option is likely Tony Kemp, who is an outfield-leaning version of what Martinez is looking to make Wilmer Difo (who has one minor league option remaining) into. The Astros actually had plenty of confidence in Kemp as a second baseman, but Jose Altuve blocked his path to the majors. Instead, he became their starting left fielder for an extended stretch of last season, also seeing 32 appearances in center.
Kemp is a spark plug, and there’s a chance that the Astros retain him. However, the addition of Michael Brantley in free agency places him back on the bench, and they have a wealth of outfield bodies in waiting. Kyle Tucker is held in high regard as a big league-ready prospect, Derek Fisher has a five-tool ceiling—no, that doesn’t mean on a Mike Trout level—and Jake Marisnick is their preferred center fielder off the bench.
Even if Houston chooses to designate Kemp for assignment, Washington is behind many other teams in the waiver order, so a light trade package is likely necessary in order to acquire him. Then again, he could help the Nationals in quite a few areas, so it’s worth considering.
If either Taylor or Kendrick are in a position similar to Daniel Murphy’s last year—which they don’t appear to be—someone must be added if the Nationals legitimately want to contend for the postseason. However, even if they aren’t, this could be a blessing in disguise long term. Any of these six players would be an upgrade over Stevenson at a minimum, and Kemp may even displace Difo, whose future is already in question, particularly with Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia quickly ascending up the minor league system.
Adding a body could also help them preserve Robles’ status towards free agency. That shouldn’t be the impetus for a move, but it would provide value for an acquired player once the team is full-strength, assuming their play merited it.
A move of this ilk may or may not be necessary by the time the playoff chase comes around, but if there winds up being an opening on the roster initially, why not give it a try? After all, midseason injuries have tested Washington’s outfield depth quite a few times recently. That’s the biggest reason why Taylor himself has been called upon so many times.