In June 2016, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff determined that INF Chris Taylor was not going to amount to much as a major leaguer. While the 25-year-old shortstop/second baseman had a .314 batting average over parts of five minor league seasons in the organization, he’d been a .240 hitter for Seattle in 86 games after the club selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft.
So Dipoto dispatched Taylor to Los Angeles for 23-year-old RHP Zach Lee, a first-round pick by the Dodgers in 2010. At the time, Lee had appeared in one major league game. He lost it 15-2.
Dipoto probably felt pretty good about the deal after Taylor did nothing of consequence in the 34 games he played for the Dodgers over the balance of the 2016 season. He hit .207 in 58 at-bats with an on-base percentage of .258. Dipoto hadn’t given up anything. But Lee went 0-9 with a 7.39 ERA in 14 starts for the Rainiers. Dipoto hadn’t gotten anything, either.
After that wash, the Mariners quietly waived Lee following the season. San Diego claimed him, but waived him earlier this month when he went 2-5, 7.12 for AAA El Paso.
The Taylor-for-Lee deal would have gone down as an entirely forgettable minor league transaction except for the fact that Taylor, who had never played in more than 48 games in an MLB season and had only one home run in 383 MLB at-bats entering 2017, suddenly morphed into one of the star hitters for the Dodgers. They have been threatening to match the record 116 wins posted by the 2001 Mariners.
Through 132 games, the Dodgers are 91-41, despite a current five-game losing streak. Through the same number of games in 2001, the Mariners were 94-38 en route to 116-46, which matched the MLB record for wins set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs.
Taylor has played 113 games and is slashing .305/.376/.530. That’s 60 points higher across the board than he hit with Seattle. His batting average is third-best on the Dodgers behind 3B Justin Turner’s .327 and SS Corey Seager’s .311. Taylor has 19 home runs — 18 more than in any other season — and 65 RBIs.
Unwanted by Dipoto, Taylor has a WAR of 4.3. Among Seattle’s position players, the best WAR is 3.2 by Nelson Cruz, followed by Jarrod Dyson’s 2.7 and Robinson Cano’s 2.5.
How did this happen? How did Taylor, who made his debut with Seattle July 24, 2014, go from a trade afterthought to one of the major offensive weapons in the NL West in little more than a year?
Dipoto, who came to Seattle with the reputation as a player development guru, would probably love to know after swapping Taylor for Lee, a deal that suddenly borders on the brutal.
“The mechanical changes I made to my swing are the biggest thing,” Taylor told The Sporting News recently.
Taylor didn’t make the Dodgers’ 25-man roster coming out of spring training despite hitting .354/.483/.500 with three doubles and two triples in 48 at-bats.
He was called up April 19 when OFs Logan Forsythe and Rob Segedin both landed on the disabled list, and he’s been on a roll since, His work with Dodgers’ coaches tweaked practically every aspect of his swing, which the Mariners obviously failed to do.
According to Dodger Digest, at the urging of consultants Robert Van Scoyoc and Craig Wallenbrock, Taylor exaggerated the height of his leg kick, roughly from the height of his shoe to the height of his sock (Taylor typically wears his socks just below his kneecaps.)
Then he developed more momentum toward the ball with his swing. That helpedfTaylor to improve his average exit velocity from 87.5 mph to 91.1, according to MLB’s Statcast. Taylor’s altered mechanics dramatically increased his contact rate, transforming him from a .240 to a .300 hitter.
The Dodgers have used Taylor in every batting order spot from No. 1 through No. 9. The vast majority of his at-bats have come as a leadoff hitter, where his slash line was .345/.420/.620 through Thursday. Put that in context: The year that Ichiro collected 262 hits (2004), his line was .372/.414/.455.
The Mariners have no need for a second baseman or shortstop with Dipoto having inherited Cano from predeceesor Jack Zduriencik and traded last offseason for Jean Segura. But Taylor has more plate appearances this season as a left fielder (206) and center fielder (125) than he does as an infielder (118). Only 38 of Taylor’s PAs as an infielder have come as a second baseman or shortstop.
So not only has Taylor improved as a hitter since he departed Seattle, he’s become a full-time outfielder who can fill in at three infield slots and a full-time leadoff hitter who can also hit at any spot in the lineup — for baseball’s best team, no less. Taylor never played in the outfield or led off while in the Mariners organization.
It’s true that the Mariners’ struggle to stay relevant in the wild card race was prompted mostly by injuries to pitchers. But as they begin callups Friday from a depleted farm system, it’s worthy of note that they had a young .300 hitter in their midst and could find him neither a swing nor a position.
Imagine what the revived Taylor might have fetched at the either the July 31 or Aug. 31 trade deadlines.