Much ink has already been spilled, or pixels illuminated, about the upcoming offseason and the superclass of shortstops. Even though the Mets extended Francisco Lindor and took one of the most intriguing names out of the pool, it’s still going to feature such marquee names as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Baez and Marcus Semien. But there’s one name that’s also on the list that is sometimes overlooked. If you’ve read the headline to this piece, then you already know I’m talking about Chris Taylor.
Perhaps the reason Taylor doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of that group is that he’s not exactly an everyday shortstop like the rest of them. (Semien has been playing mostly second base this year, but only because of the presence of Bo Bichette next to him. He could very easily return to shortstop duty with a new club next season.) Taylor is more of a utility guy who is capable of playing some shortstop, if needed. He’s appeared at the position in each of the past eight seasons, but never more than 81 games. Also, he reached that number back in 2018. In 2019, that number dropped to 39. In the shortened 2020 season, it was 20 games, exactly one third of the 60-game reduced schedule. This year, it’s only been 22 games so far. The fact that he’s not considered an everyday option is at least somewhat borne out by statistics. To give one example, of the 46 players to log at least 1000 innings at shortstop over the past five years, Taylor’s UZR/150 of -7.5 ranks 43rd, in the vicinity of guys who don’t play at short much anymore, such as Aledmys Diaz and Manny Machado.
Still, even though he’s not an everyday option, he has versatility, which is something teams love. Taylor has also played second base, third base and all three outfield positions this year, meaning that he could conceivably be plugged into the lineup of any team in the league and move around to their area of greatest need. That could potentially give him tremendous leverage in free agency this winter, just as it did for Ben Zobrist six years ago. Zobrist was able to use that vast market to net himself a four-year, $56MM contract with the Cubs in December of 2015. Could Chris Taylor get something like that? Well, let’s compare.
For starters, Taylor will have a distinct advantage over Zobrist in one category: age. Zobrist was set to turn 35 in May of 2016, shortly after making his Cubs debut. Taylor just turned 31 two weeks ago. Taylor will be 3 1/2 years younger while on the market this winter than Zobrist was back in 2015, meaning a team could potentially be willing to put an even longer contract in front of Taylor.
Secondly, in terms of defense, although Zobrist had shortstop experience, he didn’t play there in 2015. Then he only logged 15 innings at shortstop over the course of his time with the Cubs. Clearly, the club wasn’t expecting him to provide significant time there. Nor was he an option in center field. His last action there was seven games for the Rays in 2014. Taylor, on the other hand, has played 56 games in center this season and 181 over the past five years. Although much was made of Zobrist’s versatility, he was primarily a second baseman and corner outfielder by the time he signed with the Cubs. Due to Taylor’s ability to play almost everywhere, including premium positions like shortstop and center field, he brings more versatility to the table than Zobrist did at that time.
That’s age and defense, but what about the bat? Since becoming an everyday player in 2017, Taylor has played in 610 games and logged 2,349 plate appearances over those five seasons. His line in that time is .266/.344/.464, which amounts to a wRC+ of 118. In the five years leading up to Zobrist’s contract, he played 742 games and logged 3,229 plate appearances, with a line of .272/.359/.437, wRC+ of 124. Zobrist has the higher batting average but Taylor has more power and ends up with fairly similar production overall.
That’s being a bit unfair to Zobrist because it leaves out his monster 2009 season wherein he hit .297/.405/.543 for a wRC+ of 152 and produced 8.7 fWAR. However, that was a distant memory by the time the Cubs signed Zobrist heading into the 2016 season. You don’t sign a player who’s about to turn 35 based on what he did when he was 28. However, by the same token, one could argue that we shouldn’t be including Taylor’s excellent 2017 season because he was 26 then but is 31 now. If we shrink the sample down to the three years before free agency, Zobrist’s line is .274/.356/413, wRC+ of 117, whereas Taylor’s line is .262/.345/.459, wRC+ of 117.
Okay, so, Taylor is like a younger and more versatile version of 2015-2016 Zobrist, and very similar with the bat. One major unknown at the moment, though, is what kind of momentum he will bring into the offseason. One thing I’ve failed to mention thus far is that Zobrist entered free agency on the heels of an excellent playoff performance, having just helped the Royals win the 2015 World Series. In that postseason, Zobrist played in 16 games, garnering 75 plate appearances, producing a line of .303/.365/.515, wRC+ of 133.
Taylor is in the opposite position right now, slumping terribly over the past month. Since August 13th, he’s hitting .136/.217/.272, wRC+ of 34. It seems this slide could at least be somewhat chalked up to a neck injury that has kept Taylor out of action for almost a week now. But the Dodgers haven’t placed him on the injured list, which suggests they don’t think it’s terribly serious. Teams are surely able to overlook a small, injury-caused slump amidst a solid five-year run of success. Though it would certainly help Taylor’s earning power if he could prove that’s all it is by getting back to being healthy and productive. The window for him to do that is getting narrow, however, since there’s just over two weeks remaining in the regular season. The Dodgers have already clinched a playoff berth of some kind, but they’re 1 1/2 games behind the Giants in the race for the NL West crown, meaning they’re guaranteed only one postseason game.
Another wrinkle is the qualifying offer. Zobrist was traded mid-season in 2015, making him ineligible for it. Taylor, on the other hand, will most likely receive one, assuming his long-term health outlook is okay. That means that any team signing him would have to forfeit their second-highest draft pick, or third-highest, if they are a revenue-sharing recipient. That would certainly dampen his market somewhat.
Taking all of that into account, where does that leave us? Zobrist got four years, $56MM, which is an average annual value of $14MM. Taylor will be more versatile and almost as good at the plate. Bake in a few years of inflation and Taylor could aim for a few extra million per year. Because of his age, and assuming no lingering questions about his health, maybe he gets five years instead of four. So, does some team go to five years, $80MM? That certainly feels high, especially given that DJ LeMahieu just got $90MM from the Yankees before this season. (LeMahieu is also older and less versatile than Taylor but was coming off a tremendous two-year stretch at the plate.)
Perhaps the qualifying offer knocks that down some and Taylor actually can’t quite get to Zobrist levels. Maybe this is a bit too optimistic in Taylor’s favor. Still, despite his recent slump, Taylor’s wRC+ is currently sitting at 118 for the season. Baez is at 121. Trevor Story is at 99. Taylor might not be as much of a household name as those two, but his earning power might be closer to them than you think.