Welcome to Bat Flips & Nerds, Pat Davenport…|
Being a Rays fan has been pretty easy as of late. Three playoff appearances in a row, back-to-back division titles and a trip to the World Series have done more than enough to please the Tampa faithful over the past few seasons. They do, however, have a rather unique set of problems that can really test a fan’s patience. That national discourse around the Rays’ woeful stadium situation, alongside threats of a sister-city concept with Montreal and the constant chatter of how the ‘Rays way’ is bad for baseball can be enough to leave any supporter drained of enthusiasm, but perhaps the toughest ordeal a Rays fan can suffer is the age-old task of buying a jersey.
In their attempts to remain competitive over the long-term while remaining on their conservative payroll, Tampa Bay have seen their roster become an ever-revolving door of ins and outs. A player will arrive and ascend to the top of the Major League mountain, only to be traded elsewhere once they have two years of team control remaining in order to gain maximum returns. Only a small number of players make it past the five-year mark with the club, and those few are generally considered franchise legends. Players such as Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Chris Archer all managed to record a lengthy stay in Tropicana Field, but even they couldn’t make it to ‘Ray for life’ status. While Crawford and Upton’s departures through free agency were understandable for the cash-strapped Rays, Archer and Longoria accepted a hometown discount on a team-friendly extension and were still traded in order to build for the future.
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This brings us to the curious case of Kevin Kiermaier. A defensive wizard, Kiermaier is the longest tenured active Ray and currently sits fourth on the all-time games played leader board for the franchise. He also has three gold gloves and a platinum glove while anchoring down centre field since his first full season in 2014. KK has managed eight seasons with the team and has been the one constant in a regime that prides itself on its eternal turnover. Fans could head down to St Petersburg on a summer night safe in the knowledge that they’d see ‘The Outlaw’ steal extra-base hits all over the diamond. His value to the club as a consistent veteran presence and clubhouse leader has been undisputed by both players and the front office alike, then why do many think it’s time for the Rays to move on?
The reasons to keep KK around are simple. For one, Kiermaier is a generational defender – despite being a below Major League average hitter, his abilities in the field have been measured to be the being one of, if not the best outfielder in all of baseball over the past half a decade. He leads all active outfielders in defensive WAR and currently has the 3rd most outfield outs above average (OAA) recorded since the statistic was introduced in 2016. If statistics aren’t your thing, the good old-fashioned eye test will prove this point too. Any YouTube search of Kiermaier’s defensive highlights will have your jaw on the floor. Player value stats adore him too, his elite glove work at a premium position coupled with some league average hitting create the perfect storm to rack up WAR at a near hall of fame pace. Since 2014, KK has accumulated 30.7 bWAR, placing 18th in all of baseball in that time period. For context, that’s more valuable than players such as Giancarlo Stanton, Xander Bogaerts and George Springer, and sitting just below Francisco Lindor and Bryce Harper. To emphasise how crazy Kiermaier’s WAR generating ability is, he is only one of two players in the top 20 with fewer than 900 games played, joining top free agent Carlos Correa with that unique distinction.
Alongside the data and statistics, the Rays mainstay provides an important veteran presence that is much needed in a very young Rays team. Players like Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena have already gone on record saying that the presence of Nelson Cruz helped immensely when developing maturity and other aspects on the mental side of the game, and we’re coming to a point where Kiermaier is in a position to do the same. Now well into his thirties and an eight-year Rays veteran, he is well positioned to be that veteran leader the club needs.
While that sounds like a compelling argument for the Rays to keep their centre fielder around, there are equally valid reasons as to why many fans and analysts believe it would be best for Tampa to explore the trade market and move him elsewhere. An age-old problem with the Rays, payroll always comes first, and Kiermaier is set to earn $12M in 2022 – the highest salary on the team. Getting that money off the books allows Stu Sternberg to save some money and keep his payroll below the dreaded $70M mark. The $12M saved can either be pocketed or spread across cheaper veterans or younger players, either would suit the Rays preferred method of business.
While money is always a factor in Tampa, the outfielder conundrum goes a little deeper than purely financial reasons. The Rays have a ton of MLB quality outfielders at the moment, and only a few spaces to play them. Right now, the Rays have Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, Brett Phillips and Austin Meadows in the outfield mix alongside Kiermaier, and that’s before you add highly regarded prospects Josh Lowe and Vidal Brujan into the equation. Lowe in particular had an excellent season in AAA last year and both of them will be looking to crack the big-league roster during spring training. Keeping Kiermaier around could potentially stunt the development of these players by keeping them in the minors.
It has been reported that not long before the lockout the Phillies had expressed interest in a trade for Kiermaier, and many fans had already have said their goodbyes. If the Rays believe in their guy and stick with him, he will likely become a free agent following the 2022 season, as it appears unlikely Erik Neander and co. will pick up his $13M club option for 2023. For better or for worse it seems the KK era may be coming to an end, so maybe it would be better to see a return for the web gem machine, but it would come at a steep emotional cost, a cost that has plagued Rays fans for well over a decade. I believe it is time to finally buck the trend and commit to the man and have Kiermaier and Franco lead the team into their new stadium, whether it be in Tampa or Montreal, or both.