The Twins added some outfield depth Monday evening, announcing the acquisition of Michael A. Taylor from the division-rival Royals. Minor league relievers Evan Sisk and Steven Cruz are headed back to Kansas City. Right-hander A.J. Alexy was designated for assignment to clear a spot for Taylor on the 40-man roster.
Taylor has spent the past two years in Kansas City. Initially signed to a one-year, $1.75MM guarantee over the 2020-21 offseason, Taylor impressed Royals’ brass with his excellent outfield defense. The rangy center fielder proved a perfect fit for spacious Kauffman Stadium and an organization that places a premium on defense. He secured his first career Gold Glove in 2021 and earned himself a $9MM extension covering the 2022-23 campaigns late in that season.
During the first season of that new two-year deal, Taylor continued his typically excellent defensive play. He logged just over 1000 innings of center field work, with Defensive Runs Saved pegging him as 19 runs better than average at the outfield’s most demanding position. It was the second consecutive year in which DRS graded him at +19 runs, making him far and away the game’s most valuable defensive outfielder by that metric. Since the start of 2021, no other center fielder has tallied more than 21 total DRS — with second-place Myles Straw well behind Taylor’s cumulative +38 mark.
Statcast wasn’t quite as enthusiastic last season, though it also rated him as an above-average center fielder. Its Outs Above Average metric put Taylor at +5 runs last year after rating him 14 runs above average the previous season. Straw narrowly edges him out over the two-year stretch by that measure, but Taylor still checks in second at the position going back to the start of the ’21 season.
Byron Buxton, of course, is one of the few outfielders in the game who’s as good or better than Taylor defensively. He hasn’t the same opportunity to vault to the top of the league in cumulative defensive metrics, however, as injuries have kept him off the field. Buxton has played 955 center field innings over the past two years, fewer than Taylor has reached in each individual season. He’s suffered strains in his right hip in each of the last two seasons and missed a couple months in the second half of 2021 after fracturing his left hand on a hit-by-pitch. Buxton also played through a right knee injury last season, one that required season-ending surgical repair once the Twins fell out of playoff contention.
The All-Star outfielder shows MVP-caliber upside when healthy and will obviously remain Minnesota’s starting center fielder. He’s only once topped 100 games in a season, however, so it’s understandable the Twins want to fortify their depth behind him. Gilberto Celestino was the top reserve option last year, but he hit only .238/.313/.302 with a pair of home runs in 347 trips to the plate. Celestino is a quality defender but not at Taylor’s level. With a minor league option year still remaining, the 23-year-old could open the season in Triple-A St. Paul now that he’s been jumped on the depth chart.
Right fielder Max Kepler is athletic enough to handle center field if needed, though there’s no guarantee he’ll even be on the roster come Opening Day. Minnesota has a number of left-handed hitting outfielders, raising the possibility of them dealing from that group to address other areas like first base or the bullpen. Kepler, as the oldest player in the group and the one with the least amount of remaining club control, would be the most straightforward candidate for such a move.
The Twins traded for an outfielder in spite of that seeming surplus, though Taylor’s right-handed bat will help to balance things. He’s posted below-average overall offensive numbers throughout his career, carrying a .241/.296/.381 line over parts of nine big league seasons. Aside from a solid .271/.320/.486 showing with the Nationals in 2017, he’s been a subpar hitter in every year. That has been the case regardless of pitcher handedness, though he’s predictably been a little better when holding the platoon advantage. Taylor carries a .257/.310/.412 career line against left-handed pitching, compared to a .235/.290/.369 mark against righties.
Strikeouts have been the primary issue for the 31-year-old. He’s punched out in 29.4% of his career trips to the plate while walking at a meager 6.9% rate. To his credit, Taylor did take a bit of a step forward in that department last season. His 23.9% strikeout rate was a personal low, only a couple percentage points higher than the league mark. He seemed to sacrifice a little in the way of impact to do so, with last season’s 32.3% hard contact rate representing the lowest figure of his career.
Taylor obviously won’t be counted upon to provide much of an offensive jolt. He brings some lineup balance, joining Celestino as the only righty-swinging outfielders on the 40-man roster. More importantly, he’ll offer manager Rocco Baldelli a quality defensive option either off the bench or if needed in the event Buxton misses time.
It’s an affordable addition for the Twins, who’ll assume the $4.5MM Taylor’s due during the upcoming season before hitting free agency. That brings Minnesota’s projected payroll to $155MM, as calculated by Roster Resource. That’ll be a franchise-record mark, with the club opening last year in the $134MM range. The Twins had been fairly quiet this offseason until the calendar flipped to 2023, but they’ve re-signed Carlos Correa, flipped Luis Arraez for Pablo López and prospects and now brought in Taylor within a matter of weeks. Minnesota figures to continue to scour the market for upgrades, at least around the margins, as they battle the Guardians and White Sox in the AL Central.
The Royals, meanwhile, ship away a veteran for future help on the heels of a 65-win season. Taylor looked like one of the better trade candidates on the roster as an impending free agent. Kansas City set a fairly significant ask initially, reportedly targeting right-hander Josh Winder in talks with the Twins. Minnesota balked and the sides eventually pivoted to a pair of minor leaguers.
Sisk, 26 in April, entered the professional ranks as a 16th-round pick of the Cardinals in 2018. The College of Charleston product landed in Minnesota at the 2021 trade deadline in the deal that sent J.A. Happ to St. Louis. A left-handed reliever, Sisk split the season between Double-A Wichita and St. Paul. He threw 63 innings through 50 appearances, posting a brilliant 1.57 ERA while punching out an excellent 29.8% of batters faced. Yet he also walked an alarming 11.4% of opponents and has shown scattershot control throughout his time in the minors.
It’s a similar story with Cruz, a 6’7″ right-hander. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he’s pitched 192 1/3 frames through five minor league seasons. Cruz spent the entire 2022 season in Wichita, showing a similar high-strikeout, high-walk approach as Sisk. The 23-year-old fanned 28% of opponents but walked batters at a near-14% rate. Baseball America wrote last season that Cruz can touch triple-digits and owns an upper-80’s slider that gives him a chance to carve out an MLB bullpen spot if he can better hone the strike-throwing.
Neither Sisk nor Cruz are on the 40-man roster. Both players were left unprotected for and went undrafted in this offseason’s Rule 5 draft. They’ll give the Kansas City player development staff a pair of upper-level bullpen possibilities with the clear ability to miss bats. Both pitchers could get a look at some point in 2023. Cruz would be eligible for minor league free agency if he’s not added to the 40-man roster by next offseason.
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