The Washington Nationals have long been searching for their perfect center fielder. In the beginning, we saw Brad Wilkerson and a litany of fleet-footed, but contact-challenged, little guys (think Nook Logan, Brandon Watson, Endy Chavez and the rest) come and go. We were told Lastings Milledge was the answer, until we found out he couldn’t see the ball from center until it got above the top of the stadium.
For the past two seasons, Denard Span has been tracking everything down in center, but his questionable on-base skills and ineptitude against left-handed pitching have left much to be desired.
While Span has helmed the spot, the Nats have been, somewhat quietly, bringing up two candidates in the minor leagues that could challenge for that spot in the not-too-distant future. The team has a $9 million option for next season with Span and while it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Nats exercise that option, it would also not be surprising to see Span challenged and eventually bumped out of the spot before that option year was up.
Let’s look at the candidates:
Brian Goodwin: Goodwin was the Nats third pick in the first round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft. The 34th overall pick out of Miami-Dade College, Goodwin, 6’0″, 200 lbs., was a five-tool athlete many envisioned at the top of an MLB batting order. Goodwin possesses an elite eye and exercises terrific plate discipline. He’s a rare minor league hitter that controls his at bats, instead of letting the pitcher dictate. He has very good speed and good pop, and plays a mean centerfield with great range and a good throwing arm.
The knock on Goodwin thus far in his minor league career is making consistent contact. He owns a .255/.367/.409 slash line in 276 minor league games, but this season at AAA Syracuse, at age 23, he’s hit just .208/.359/.287, with just 10 extra base hits in 223 plate appearances. His elite eye has allowed him to walk 41 times in those appearances and he’s cut down on his K%, but the lack of contact and power this season is disconcerting. Despite his speed, he’s run just six times this year and converted on all but one attempt.
Goodwin has a history of starting slowly once promoted, only to turn it around in the second half, so that will bear watching as this season develops.
Michael Taylor: Taylor was a sixth round pick in the 2009 draft from Westminster Academy in Ft. Lauderdale. He was drafted as a shortstop but was very quickly moved to the outfield after his first season in rookie ball. Taylor was always more of a project than a natural baseball player. Taylor was a gifted multi-sport athlete in high school and the Nats worked hard with him in the low minors to transition him to the outfield. Through that hard work, he’s become one of the top defenders in all of the minor leagues.
The question with Taylor has always been the bat. In three minor league seasons, Taylor never OBP’d higher than .318 until last season for Potomac, when he hit .263/.340/.426 with 10 homers and 87 RBIs. He also had a spectacular year on the basepaths, stealing on 51 of 58 attempts. This season, the 6’3″, 215 lbs. 23-year-old has really put it together at AA Harrisburg. Through 52 games, he’s hitting .325/.405/.629 and leads the Eastern League with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs, while going 14-for-16 on stolen base attempts.
Taylor has never come close to matching this type of success in professional baseball, so we’ll have to monitor him in the summer months to see if he wilts.
It’s not hard to compare the seasons both players are having and wonder if Goodwin is stalling while Taylor is starting to blossom. Goodwin has the pedigree with his first round status and rankings on “top prospects” lists. But Taylor is slowly coming into his own. If he really has “figured it out” at the plate, with his elite defensive skills he could really push Goodwin on the prospect depth chart and challenge for a spot in D.C. before the more celebrated Goodwin.