READING - It seems as if it were just yesterday that a Phillies hitting prospect was tearing up the Eastern League and being mentioned in trade rumors.
In 2004, it was Ryan Howard.
This year, it's outfielder Michael Taylor.
Five years ago, Howard's path to the majors was blocked by Jim Thome, then the Phils' first baseman. Howard was frequently mentioned as a trade candidate, but the Phils never received an offer they felt was adequate. They held on to Howard and he ascended to the majors when Thome got hurt in 2005. After that season, it was Thome who got traded to make room for Howard.
Like Howard, Taylor, 23, was a fifth-round draft pick. (Howard was picked out of Southwest Missouri State in 2001; Taylor out of Stanford in 2007.) Like Howard, Taylor put up huge numbers at single A and is doing it again at double A, where he entered last night's game leading the Reading Phillies with a .341 batting average, nine home runs, 38 RBIs, and a league-best .604 slugging percentage in 46 games.
When Taylor looks upward, he sees traffic - just as Howard did when he was a minor-leaguer. Leftfielder Raul Ibanez is in the first year of a three-year contract, and rightfielder Jayson Werth the first year of a two-year deal.
Ibanez and Werth aren't the only players that could affect Taylor's rise. The Phillies don't have a wealth of position-player depth in their farm system. However, corner outfield is one spot they do. John Mayberry Jr., 25, is back in triple A after a nice cameo with the big club. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Dominic Brown, widely hailed as the best prospect in the system, is putting together a strong season at single-A Clearwater. Below that, the Phils have two excellent outfield prospects at single-A Lakewood in Anthony Gose and Zach Collier.
"It doesn't take a genius to see how it works," the personable and upbeat Taylor said without a hint of resignation. "One guy [Ibanez] is leading the league in everything, and the other guy [Werth] is a great player who does everything well.
"John is at triple A and he's on the 40-man roster. I'm here at double A, and right behind me is the No. 1 prospect [Brown]. Conventional wisdom says someone might go."
The Phils are looking for starting pitching help, and it could take a player like Taylor to land what they need. They are not in a hurry to trade Taylor - organization officials rave about his upside, performance, character, and work ethic - but there are factors suggesting that Taylor could go. He is younger and may have a higher ceiling than Mayberry. That could make him more coveted and therefore bring a better return than Mayberry.
Though no one has said it, Brown and pitcher Kyle Drabek seem to be untouchable. Collier and Gose, both products of last year's draft, can't be dealt until they have been in the system a year, and the Phillies probably aren't in a hurry to trade either. Together, they cost the Phils $1.775 million in signing bonuses.
It all adds up to Taylor possibly being a trade chip. (It is imperative to use the word possibly because team officials won't comment on potential trades or trade pieces.)
"My goal is to play for Philadelphia, but I understand this is a business," Taylor said. "If I don't make it to the big leagues with the Phillies, hopefully, it will be with someone else. At the end of the day, if you're good enough to make it, you'll make it."
Team officials believe Taylor will play in the big leagues.
"All the ingredients are there," said scouting director Marti Wolever. "And one of them is this: He really believes he's going to be a big-leaguer. That's important."
Wolever has had his eye on Taylor for years. In 2002, Phillies scouts traveled frequently to Apopka High School near Orlando to peek in on pitcher/shortstop Zack Greinke. (He was picked sixth by Kansas City; the Phils took Cole Hamels 17th.) While watching Greinke, Phillies scouts developed a liking for Taylor, then a sophomore outfielder and straight A student at Apopka. The Phils did not draft Taylor because he was committed to going to Stanford, but three years later, when he became eligible for the draft again, they took him.
Taylor is a physical specimen who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 250. He is diabetic, but that has never held him back. At Stanford, Taylor featured a contact approach at the plate. The Phillies always believed he could use his size to drive the ball and he showed power with 19 homers in 132 games last year. The power has been evident again this year, but Taylor insists he is not just a power guy. His .345 (226 for 656) combined batting average this season and last bears that out.
"In a traditional sense, I am not a power hitter," Taylor said. "I don't hit balls up in the air that climb out of the park. I'm up there trying to get a lot of hits. If they go out, that's fine."
When talking about Taylor in trade discussions, the Phillies will keep his power (and power potential) in mind because it could be very attractive in Citizens Bank Park.
Assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said that if Taylor continues to perform the way he has at double A over the first two months of the season, he would be a candidate to move to triple A later in the season.
For now, he's tearing up the Eastern League, just as Ryan Howard once did.
"I have to focus on myself and what I can become," Taylor said. "I think I have a chance to have a very good career."
The Phillies are looking for starting pitching. They have some talent and depth in the minor leagues at corner outfield spots, and might consider using one of the following prospects in a trade:
John Mayberry Jr., 25 - He's back in triple A after hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium in his second big-league at-bat. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Mayberry has excellent power but needs to make more contact to maximize it. He was hitting .277 with 8 homers, 25 RBIs, and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .887 in 37 games at triple A.
Michael Taylor, 23 - Like Mayberry, he is a Stanford product and has excellent size (6-6, 250) and power potential. Scouts believe his power numbers could improve if he incorporates more of his body into his swing. Contact is not a problem. His combined batting average last season in single A and this season in double A is .345. He was hitting .341 with 9 homers, 38 RBIs and a 1.001 OPS in 46 games at double-A Reading.
Dominic Brown, 21 - An excellent athlete, he passed on a chance to be a wide receiver at Miami. His whip-like lefthanded swing and 6-5 frame have prompted comparisons to Darryl Strawberry. He was hitting .317 with 6 homers, 33 RBIs and a .941 OPS in 44 games at single-A Clearwater. He has the raw ingredients to develop into a major-league all-star and may be an untouchable in trade talks.
- Jim Salisbury