By JAY LeBLANC
The defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies lead the National League in runs, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and total bases, so it almost seems unfair that Michael Taylor appears nearly ready to join their already stacked lineup. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound outfielder hit .346 with 19 home runs and 88 RBI while splitting time between Class A and advanced Class A in 2008 and has continued mashing this season for the Double-A Reading Phillies. The 23-year-old ranks in the Eastern League’s top seven in all three Triple Crown categories with a .333 average (fifth), 10 home runs (fifth) and 42 RBI (seventh). The linebacker-sized slugger also ranks eighth in the circuit with 10 stolen bases in 14 attempts.
Taylor earned USA Today First-Team All-American honors as a senior at Apopka (Fla.) high school and also excelled in the classroom, graduating sixth in his class. He accepted a baseball scholarship to Stanford and held his own as a freshman in 2005, hitting .289 with four home runs in 59 games. He raised his average to .325 as a sophomore, setting the stage for a breakout junior season in which he hit .335 with 12 homers and 59 RBI to earn All-Pac-10 honors. The Phillies took notice and selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. Taylor struggled in his first taste of pro ball that summer with the short-season Class A Williamsport CrossCutters, hitting just .227 with six homers in 66 games, but has abused minor league pitching ever since.
I had the chance to speak with Taylor - the sixth-best prospect in the Phillies organization, according to Baseball America - on Tuesday night before he and his Reading teammates took on the Baltimore Orioles-affiliated Bowie Baysox at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md.
Q: You took a huge step forward last season after struggling in your pro debut. To what to you attribute the vast improvement?
A: To me, it’s a combination of a lot of things. There’s obviously a progression that happens with every player, and there’s a different clock for every individual. I think that baseball sort of has its own set of standards for when you’re supposed to progress or where you’re supposed to be at certain times but, as has been shown throughout baseball history, some guys peak when they’re 18, some guys get a little bit better every day and some guys make leaps. I’m just working extremely hard and trying to learn and grow as a player every day - learn from the guys in this organization, learn from the older players, the veterans, and learn from the players that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet throughout baseball who have had success and been in the game a long time. You kind of mix those all up with a little time, a little seasoning and a lot of work, and for me, it clicked to a point. I’m still trying to get better every day.
Q: What kinds of things do you do off the field to prepare you to succeed on it?
A: Sleep. To be honest with you, I work here a lot, but one of the things is getting your rest. Making sure you eat well, hydrate well, all those things, so your body can stay in good shape and stay conditioned through the grind of the season. We play every day and there’s a lot of travel, so it’s tough in that respect. And then also, just sometimes not taking work home with you. I mean, there are some times when you’re going to struggle - you’re going to have 50, 60, 70 [at bats] where you’re struggling - so not taking that home with you and also not getting too excited when things are going well. Trying to stay even-keel and stay prepared off the field by taking care of your body.
Q: Do you step up to the plate with a plan, or do you just trust your reactions?
A: I definitely go up with a plan. When you get to this level I don’t think there are too many guys - I mean, obviously there are some up there [in the majors] - that are naturally gifted enough to just react. You’re talking about some of the best pitchers in the world, with the amount of velocity they can bring and the breaking stuff and how they can work you and mix counts on you, so it’s difficult to just react at this level. You have an idea about what the opposing team, the opposing pitcher, the opposing catcher want to do, would like to try to do against you, and you try to go up there with an idea of where you want to hit and what you want to hit. Hopefully it ends in success, and if it doesn’t, then you adjust your plan.
Q: What are some of your goals for this season?
A: I just want to continue to get better. We’re doing a great job; we’re winning a lot. We’ve had some changes, and we’ve lost some guys to the big leagues. It’s been really fun this far though, winning. We lost last year in Clearwater when I was there for the second half, so this is definitely much better, coming to the ballpark every day with a chance to win and having that be part of the focus. It’s been great thus far, and individually, I just need to try and improve as a player and hopefully get to a level where someone thinks that I’m a big-league outfielder.
Q: What aspects of your game are you most focused on improving upon this year?
A: Oh, everything. Offensively, obviously, being as consistent as possible is a big one. As a corner outfielder, you know, getting hits, putting up numbers is something you have to focus on and concentrate on, but I want to get better at everything. I want to get better at defense and stealing bases, and just knowing the game and knowing what they’re going to do against me.
Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model yourself after?
A: I don’t know if there’s any one individual player where I say, “I want to be that guy.” There are definitely people who, I guess, the class with which they play the game, their persona, is something to be admired. Going back to the all-time greats, you talk about your Willie Mayses - guys who carried themselves with class off the field and looked like they really had a lot of fun and enjoyed the game on the field - all the way to your Derek Jeters. Chase Utley is another guy I’ve really gotten interested in, being in this organization, with the amount of work he puts in not only on the field but also off the field as far as studying is concerned. Those are guys that I look up to as a hitter, as a young hitter, because obviously those guys are at the pinnacle of their game, and they seem to do things right.
Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Phillies?
A: You know, that’s one of those questions that you get in the minor leagues, and you’d like to think, “Right now.” But it’s something that’s not up to you as a player, and if they call on me then I’m going to use whatever skills I have, whatever knowledge I have, to help, but until then I’m here trying to help this Reading club win as much as possible. Hopefully my opportunity to play in the big leagues comes sooner than later, but I understand there’s a process and a lot of talent and a lot of ability throughout all of baseball, around the entire world. So for me, I’m just really focused on trying to get better and really just trying to help this team win right now.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s:
2009 -Jack McGeary, Nationals; L.J. Hoes, Orioles; Jordan Danks, White Sox; Mike Moustakas, Royals; Danny Duffy, Royals; Kyle Skipworth, Marlins; Xavier Avery, Orioles; Ryan Kalish, Red Sox; Derek Norris, Nationals; Zach Britton, Orioles; Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Robbie Grossman, Pirates; Brandon Waring, Orioles; Casey Kelly, Red Sox.
2008 -Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Matt LaPorta, Indians; Austin Jackson, Yankees; Jeff Bianchi, Royals; Cole Rohrbough, Braves; Pat Venditte, Yankees.