The Royals haven’t had an answer in center field since Lorenzo Cain left for the Brewers before the 2018 season. That’s four years of uncertainty at one of the most important positions on the field.
And now, they’re faced with a decision in center that hinges on some of the most fundamental questions in baseball. Offense or defense? Youth or experience? Potential or track record?
The known or the unknown?
The Royals know what they’re going to get from Michael A. Taylor. Gold Glove-caliber defense in center in one of the largest outfields in Major League Baseball. He’s a well-below average hitter who can spank one every now and again but has a career strikeout rate of 30.4%. At 31 years old, Taylor is what he is, and they were happy enough with it to sign him to a two-year extension last season.
Kyle Isbel is the unknown … or at least relatively unknown. He received only 83 MLB plate appearances last season in 28 games, during which he hit .276/.337/.434 with a 109 wRC+. He played all of 64 innings in center field, which doesn’t tell us much. His minor league numbers indicate he’s ready for the big leagues, but it’s not clear if he can play center well enough to comfort the Royals brass.
Honestly, I’m torn a bit on this, too. So, I decided to ask the people what they think. I put out a Twitter poll on the Royals Weekly account (@RoyalsWeekly), and with the help of other Royals content creators (Dave Lesky, Craig Brown, Royals Review, Royals Farm Report, Royals Rundown Podcast, and Royals Reporter), I spread it as far as possible.
Now, the results are in! And boy, it was WAY WAY closer than I imagined it would be. After 678 votes, Michael A. Taylor won the center fielder poll by all of 2 votes!
I never expected it to be this close. I expected Isbel to win comfortably because he’s the prospect, the unknown. He’s all promise, while MAT is a known quantity. Plus, Isbel’s the better hitter, and fans typically lean toward the better hitter (just goes to show how savvy Royals nation is in their baseball thinking).
With public opinion split so evenly, I’m going to lay out the case for both and at the end give my verdict.
Michael A. Taylor
He’s an elite defender in center field, and that matters a great deal in an outfield as big as Kauffman’s with a pitching staff as young and unproven as the Royals will have. In fact, Taylor’s biggest selling point is his impact on the starting rotation. Kansas City needs their young starters to hit this year so it makes sense that they do EVERYTHING in their power to support them.
At the plate, things turn south for Taylor. He put up a 77 wRC+ last year—meaning he was 23% below league average offensively. That’s bad … but not so bad it completely counters his elite defense. He was worth 1.9fWAR and 2.5bWAR last year.
Taylor’s got a .788 OPS this spring with an opponent quality of 7.6 (between AA and AAA quality pitching). If he can stay around 80 wRC+ or above, his defense is enough to make him an every day centerfielder in Kansas City.
*All spring training stats current as of 3pm, April 1st.
He’s a prototypical all-around player with solid tools across the board but nothing spectacular—very David DeJesus-ee. It’s not clear yet how good he can be in center field, but it’s clear he won’t be elite like Taylor. His lack of plus speed will prevent him from having Taylor-like range—a problem in such a spacious outfield. Some feel that he’ll make up for his lack of top-end speed a bit with excellent jumps and routes to the ball, but more time is needed to evaluate his ability in center. I got an in-person look at him in center field late last season, and I was happy with how he played. Definitely not up to Taylor’s level but adequate.
At the plate, Isbel is clearly superior to Taylor. In 83 PA in 2021, he had a 109 wRC+. It’s a small sample size, but the eye test, minor league track record, and his spring performance all indicate that Isbel will be an above average hitter in the majors at least. He’s also hitting .308/.400/.808 so far this spring. Obviously, Arizona is inflating his power numbers significantly, but it’s clear he’s a much better hitter than Taylor.
There are really two questions with Isbel, though. 1) Would his hitting superiority make up for his fielding inferiority in centerfield? 2) Is he less valuable in center field than he would be in left field or right field where he could be a ~115 wRC+ hitter and gold glove fielder?
I don’t think he Royals platoon enough, but I think this is the perfect situation for it. If I were Matheny, Picollo, and Moore, I’d institute a platoon that has Taylor playing against most left-handed pitchers and Isbel playing against most right-handed pitchers.
I’d be open to Taylor against righties in Kauffman and Isbel against lefties on the road. Ideally, it would lead to a split of about 60-40 Isbel with Isbel also getting additional playing time spelling Andrew Benintendi in left field and Whit Merrifield in right field.
The Royals need to figure out what they have in Isbel. I think he can play an average centerfield, and the potential of his bat along with his plus base running make him a viable 2-4 WAR player virtually every year. Long term, the Royals would be better served finding a centerfielder who can be elite defensively and at least average offensively, letting Isbel move to left or right field where he’s most valuable.