Youth movement is near for Nationals

Taylor, Turner will get chance to play -- even with Baker at the helm

March 21st, 2016

VIERA, Fla. -- Labels can be tough to shake in this game, and Dusty Baker has long worn this one: He favors veterans over youngsters.

At a Nationals camp in which the likely Opening Day lineup features Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa and not Michael Taylor and Trea Turner, Baker's policy on young players is worth addressing.

"I like young if they can play," Baker said Monday, before the Nats' 5-3 win over the Astros at Space Coast Stadium. "If they can't play, I don't like young or old."

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Guess what? Taylor and Turner can play. And guess what? In the Nationals' 2016 season, they will play, no matter what the Opening Day lineup happens to look like.

Taylor singled and scored a run Monday, continuing a Grapefruit League tear that has seen him bat .485 (16-for-33) with three homers, three doubles, three steals and nine RBIs. More notable than the numbers is the approach, as he has been driving the ball with authority the other way. Taylor is still striking out, and that might always be a part of his game. But the Nats will take it if it's accompanied by the power, the defensive ability and the overall comfort he is showing this spring.

"Right now, I just feel real slow and easy," Taylor said. "That's the feeling I want to hold onto."

Taylor's tale is a bit backward. He's ready now for a spot he doesn't have, whereas a year ago, he was thrust into a spot he did not yet deserve. The continued injury troubles of Denard Span forced the Nationals to scramble -- a storyline oft-repeated in a forgettable 2015 -- and so Taylor was suddenly the starting center fielder. His initial struggles at the plate were expected, but he even made some early gaffes in his outfield play, which was supposed to be his strong suit.

Taylor can admit now he was in his own head.

"I was thinking, 'It's the big leagues, and these guys have been in the league for 10 years,' and things like that,'" Taylor said. "But it really is the same game."

To Taylor's credit, he didn't collapse. He cleared those mental hurdles and learned the speed of the game was actually similar to what he was accustomed to. Taylor quickly tightened up his defensive game. He learned to shorten up in the clutch (hitting .317 with runners in scoring position). Taylor's confidence grew, and he's showing this spring what confidence can do for a player.

But confidence and spring stats aren't enough to win a starting job. Not after the Nats added Ben Revere and not with Werth, who is owed $42 million over the next two seasons, now healthy enough to play regularly in left.

This has caused some in the media world and the fan community to fret about Taylor getting hosed. The reality is that, even on a National League club devoid of the designated hitter, there are going to be plenty of plate appearances to go around. As Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports has pointed out, the Nationals have given a minimum of 500 plate appearances to their fourth and fifth outfielders in each of the past four years, due to injuries and other unforeseen circumstances. If Taylor doesn't end up with at least 400, it will be an upset.

Even if Werth stays healthy, the soon-to-be-37-year-old is going to have extra days off built into his season schedule to keep his bat and body fresh. Furthermore, Baker has no plans to play Bryce Harper or Revere each of the 162, because, tempting though it may be in Harper's case, that's overkill in such a demanding slate.

"Hank Aaron used to tell us to play 150 games a year, averaging two days off a month," Baker said. "With those two days off a month, not including off-days, that's 12 days a year where you're not doing anything but occupying ink on the lineup card. … Is Michael Taylor going to play? Well, you look around at how many guys I've gotta give blows to."

The path to at-bats for Turner, the Nats' No. 2 prospect according to, is not quite as clear.

Or maybe it is.

Espinosa, with a 3-for-25 showing, is having a miserable spring at the plate, and there were questions in the industry whether the Nationals would be better served keeping him in a utility role this season. Turner isn't struggling as much as Espinosa, nor is he surging as much as Taylor (few are). What he is doing is demonstrating how he can impact games with his glove and with his legs (five steals).

"The more well-rounded you are, the better," Turner said. "Speed is a lost art. It's starting to come back, and it's more than stealing a base. It's picking up an extra base when you can or scoring on a hit when you might not otherwise. Those small things make a big difference."

You can ask the Kansas City Royals about that.

Turner's brief foray in the bigs late last year was a take-your-lumps time. He played and hit sparingly, and he learned some valuable lessons.

"I didn't feel right, really, the whole time I was there," Turner said. "It's hard to feel good when you don't get four or five at-bats every day. It's hard to make adjustments. I probably did too much thinking, but I thought I made adjustments the last week or two where I started to play better."

Turner needs everyday at-bats, and despite Espinosa's struggles down here, they're not likely to come at the outset of 2016.

But just remember how fluid these situations can be.

A memory comes to mind of a hot prospect sitting on the bench during the 2008 season while the incumbent first baseman, a respected veteran who had made some big contributions to the club in recent years, labored at the plate. The kid didn't get his chance on Opening Day. He had to wait … two whole weeks. On April 15, he took over for good.

The kid was Joey Votto, the veteran was Scott Hatteberg and the manager was that dude who supposedly doesn't like young players.

Baker likes young if they can play. These guys are gonna play.