Things haven't gone according to script for Michael Taylor since he was acquired by the Oakland A's before the 2010 season. Taylor was coming off of a 2009 campaign split between Double-A and Triple-A during which he hit .320 with a 944 OPS and he was one of the top outfield prospects in baseball. Most expected Taylor to be a big part of the A's future and a fixture in the team's outfield as soon as mid-season 2010.
Instead, Taylor struggled during the 2010 season and saw his OPS drop to 740 and his homerun total drop from 20 in 2009 to six. Although Taylor's play with Triple-A Sacramento improved in 2011 (816 OPS and 16 homers) and 2012 (846 OPS and 12 homers), he received only a few cups of coffee at the big league level as the A's filled their outfield with outside acquisitions.
Coming into the 2013 season, there is no obvious spot for Taylor on the A's 25-man roster. Barring injuries, the A's will open the season with five veteran outfielders on their roster (Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Seth Smith), as well as first baseman Brandon Moss, who has been an outfielder for most of his career. Now 27 and in his third option year, Taylor knows that this is a critical season for his career. But he also knows that he has little control over where or for what team he will play.
Rather than worry about those details, Taylor is focused on the things he can control.
"I'm just really excited to get back and start playing. I think that that sort of takes care of everything else," Taylor said at the A's 2013 FanFest. "And it gives you a focal point. You are kind of out of control of what things can happen and, at this point, where your career might go. But once the games start and once you get to play everyday, you really start getting lost in your routines and getting ready to play games.
"I'm extremely excited to get out there and play. I've told people this before, obviously the situation is not what I envisioned or what I'd like it to be, but it is what it is. For me, I'm 27 years old and I still make a living playing baseball. You kind of have to put that lens on and see that and work with that in mind."
Taylor is coming off of his best season since joining the A's organization. Healthy for the entire year for the first time in three seasons, Taylor hit .287/.405/.441 with the River Cats. He walked a career-best 86 times and finished tied for seventh in the Pacific Coast League in on-base percentage. While those numbers didn't earn Taylor a September call-up with the A's, he isn't letting that disappointment impact his preparation for the season.
"I'm excited about what happened last year. I'm excited about what I learned throughout the year," Taylor said. "I'm probably as relaxed as I have ever been as a player from the standpoint that nothing really bothers me anymore. I know who I am and I know what I need to do to be successful. I even know what I need to do to steer my career where I want it to go."
Dating back to his collegiate days at Stanford, Taylor has been dogged by critics who believed the 6'5'', 255-pound outfielder should hit for more power. Although Taylor has put up some solid power years during his minor league career, his career-high for homeruns in a single season is 20. While Taylor runs well for a man his size and has always hit for average, his value to a team as a corner outfielder is limited if he can't reach the seats with regularity.
Taylor is acutely aware of the criticisms and has been working on addressing the issue.
"Whether it is here or somewhere else, playing the game the way that I naturally play the game probably isn't going to get me the results that I want," Taylor said. "At some point you just have to try to adapt and not really lose yourself, but at the same time, be a product. We are always sort of products being used by the powers that be. You need to be the product that is going to allow you to feed your family. That's how I'm kind of focused."
Taylor, who has always been more of an opposite field hitter than a pull hitter, believes he may have made a critical adjustment during the waning weeks of the 2012 season. In late August, the right-handed hitter was struggling and he opened his stance and altered his hitting angle and immediately liked the results, as he began to hit the ball to left field with more authority. Taylor carried those adjustments into the post-season and had eight hits in 17 at-bats, including two homeruns.
"I talk about hitting angles a lot. Guys do things naturally and, for me, it is really easy for me to hit a ball to right field. That is sort of my natural swing, where my game is inclined," Taylor said. "It sort of started midway through August and I was struggling a little bit, probably for the first time all year in Triple-A. I kind of opened up a little bit and I got out of it. I sort of started launching balls. There were even some that were getting caught that I was crushing and I was really excited about it. In the playoffs, it carried over.
"It got me thinking on the pull-side. Not necessarily thinking about pulling balls or hooking balls, because that's what I do when I think about pulling. But really just trying to hit the ball really high to left-center field. I started working first off the tee, then in BP and then in some games and it felt great. I know that sounds really simplistic and I know that people will say, ‘why didn't you do that forever?' but it was sort of a process. It's different than what I do naturally."
The story of the A's 2012 season was players who weren't at the top of the depth chart at the start of the year emerging to play important roles for the team. If Taylor can find that power stroke that emerged late last year, he could be the next A's player to burst onto the scene unexpectedly.