KANSAS CITY -- Perhaps the biggest question of the Royals’ upcoming offseason was going to be who their center fielder of the future would be as the club’s rebuild nears its next phase.
Five days before the season ended, they’ve answered the question.
The Royals and Michael A. Taylor agreed to a two-year contract extension on Wednesday, the club announced. Spanning 2022 and ’23, Taylor is guaranteed $9 million over the two years -- $4.5 million each year -- with $500,000 in potential bonuses, a source told MLB.com.
Taylor, 30, signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with Kansas City over this past offseason after being outrighted by the Nationals. As the everyday center fielder, Taylor has become one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball.
Taylor’s highlight reel of catches and his career-high 11 outfield assists are convincing enough, but defensive metrics all agree that Taylor has planted himself firmly in the Gold Glove conversation. Taylor leads the Majors with 21 defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs, and his 14 Outs Above Average, per Statcast, are tied for the Majors lead among all outfielders. Taylor’s 12.7 ultimate zone rating is the best of any player regardless of position.
“We all understand and appreciate his talent and how that talent is able to flourish here at Kauffman Stadium,” president of baseball operations Dayton Moore said. “It’s been proven. He’s played this position as easy and as well as we’ve seen it played since I’ve been here.”
“Watching how Michael patrols center field here is artwork,” manager Mike Matheny added.
After establishing himself as an elite outfielder, Taylor could have tested the waters in free agency when it opens in November. But teams don’t typically spend big on defensive-first outfielders, leading the two sides to make an agreement now. The Royals began having internal discussions about bringing Taylor back early in the second half of the season.
Plus, Kansas City is where Taylor wanted to be.
“For me, it’s just about being in the right place, and honestly, early on in Spring Training, I felt like this was the right place for me,” Taylor said. “I showed up Day 1 and just felt like I was at home. Testing the waters to see what’s out there when I already know where I want to be, it just didn’t make sense.”
Taylor listed the Royals’ future hopes of contention as a major reason to stay, as well as his core values lining up with the organization. Minutes after the deal was announced, his teammates took to Twitter to celebrate his return.
“Just an organization that’s committed to winning, an organization that’s moving in the right direction,” Taylor said. “… You want to be somewhere where you’re looking forward to showing up to work every day. And surrounded by good people. We have a team that’s going to be in contention very soon. All those things line up, and this is a place I’m looking forward to being at for a while.”
Taylor will occasionally flash immense power to all fields, showcased by his 12 home runs this year, but struggles with the strike zone have led to his .657 OPS. The Royals believe there is more in Taylor’s bat than what he’s shown this year, slashing .244/.298/.359.
“I do believe that [hitting coaches] Terry Bradshaw and John Mabry have been able to develop some trust and a relationship with Michael to have a good foundation,” Matheny said. “You look at some of the overhauls he’s made in his swing. ... I think that’s going to naturally lead to more consistency on the field and hard-hit rate, which will translate into power.”
Taylor’s defense plays particularly well at Kauffman Stadium with its spacious outfield. The Royals have been looking for a consistent center fielder since the end of the 2017 season, when Lorenzo Cain left. And they don’t have a true center fielder, ready to cover The K, in the upper levels of their system except for Kyle Isbel, who profiles more as a corner outfielder.
If Taylor’s glove remains elite, the Royals will be able to live with his bat. That’s based on the power they believe is coming in top prospects Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, all of whom are expected to debut in 2022 after combining for 108 home runs in Double-A and Triple-A this year.
Moore noted the Royals’ flyball-heavy young pitching staff as reason to lock down a center fielder, too.
“We cannot underestimate the importance of an elite talent like Michael playing center field in this ballpark,” Moore said. “When you have somebody with his ability roaming the ground here at Kauffman Stadium, combined with a young pitching staff who we expect to throw a lot more strikes going forward, you got to have somebody who can catch the ball.
“Michael really sets the tone defensively for us, as does [catcher] Salvador Perez.”
Taylor is the third player with guaranteed money from the Royals beyond 2022, joining Perez (signed through at least 2025) and Hunter Dozier (through at least ’24). Second baseman Whit Merrifield and lefty Mike Minor both have 2023 team options.
Zerpa to make Thursday start
The Royals will call up their No. 19 prospect, Angel Zerpa, on Thursday to start against Cleveland at Kauffman Stadium. With the bullpen carrying 8 1/3 innings Tuesday night after Brady Singer’s early injury exit, the Royals wouldn’t have likely been able to run a full bullpen game. Jon Heasley would be on regular rest, but the Royals have wanted to get their young starters an extra day off over the past few months.
Zerpa is on the 40-man roster and will be making his Major League debut. The lefty just turned 22 on Monday and has spent the majority of 2021 in High-A (2.59 ERA in eight starts) and Double-A (5.96 ERA in 13 starts). He made one start in Triple-A last week and allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings.