Now fielding for the Rays: Kevin Kiermaier

Kevin Kiermaier was a big breakout player for the Rays in 2013 - Jim Donten

The Rays added some outfield defense before game 163

At Bus Leagues Baseball, we used to have a feature called "Now (verbing) for (team): (player making his ML debut)". Here's an example of one from a couple years ago about Alex Cobb's debut. Originally today, I was going to start recapping last off-season's community prospect list, but when I saw that Kevin Kiermaier was added to the roster for yesterday's game against Texas, I thought I had to write about him.

His promotion represents a win for the little guy or lightly heralded prospect. In 2010 when he was drafted in the 31st round in Parkland College in Illinois (former big league reliever Juan Acevedo appears to be their most notable baseball alumni) Baseball America didn't have a scouting report on him. He was ranked 18th on their list of prospects from Illinois, two spots ahead of Rays farmhand Jake DePew and behind many players who aren't going to have the career Kiermaier has had up to this point.

It was after a solid pro debut with Princeton and a follow-up performance in the Instructional League that got him on the fringe of the prospect map. In 246 plate appearances with the P-Rays, he had a .303/.380/.431 slash line and a 9.8% walk rate. Combined with his speed and fielding ability, he showed enough for BA to rank him as the 26th best prospect in the organization after the 2010 season. Not bad for a player that signed for only $75,000 when most teams expected him to attend Purdue for the next season.

Kiermaier would fall off the prospect map after that though. In his first full professional season with Bowling Green, his feel for contact wasn't as apparent, and his slash line fell to .241/.316/.338 with a .308 BABIP. Bill Ballew, who always covers the Rays organization for Baseball America, rated him as the org's best defensive outfielder after 2011, but a .654 OPS probably wouldn't be good enough to carry that glove to the majors.

Statistically, 2012 would be a better season, but two hand injuries limited him to 61 games, not counting his brief Gulf Coast League rehab appearance. He spent the bulk of the season with Charlotte where he set career bests in walk and strikeout rates—12.3% and 17.9% respectively—and his slash line was an improved .260/.361/.367. The Rays were intrigued though, and he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League where he was one of the league's best hitters, albeit in a very small sample size. In 81 plate appearances, he was ninth in the AFL in batting average (.348), seventh in OBP (.444) and 10th in OPS (.937). It set the stage for his rebound 2013 season.

That 2013 season started in Montgomery. After Ty Morrison, the reigning best defensive outfielder in the organization, went out for the season with an elbow injury, the Biscuits still had three center fielders on the roster: Kiermaier, former first rounder Mikie Mahtook and 2012 breakout hitter Todd Glaesmann. The innings would go to Kiermaier, a tribute to his superior defensive ability.

He rewarded the Rays' confidence in him with a very good season, a lot like his pro debut with Princeton. In 417 plate appearances before a mid-season promotion, his slash line was .307/.370/.434. His walk rate was a solid 7.4%, and he still managed a lower 14.6% strikeout rate. His modest power was back, and he earned a spot on the International League champion Durham Bulls for the final stretch of the season. He continued hitting well, batting .263/.338/.423 with a 9.1% walk rate and 16.9% strikeout rate. Scouts noticed, and in a Baseball Prospectus piece from August ($), one noted that he "displays a Brett Gardner-like toolset" and "shows top-shelf speed and instincts in tracking down balls in center field." The same scout believes he could be an everyday player in center field.

Probably everyone would've been surprised by that assessment a couple seasons ago. Kevin Kiermaier, starting center fielder for the Rays? With Desmond Jennings in the majors and Mahtook expected to be a potential option, a 31st rounder could be an everyday guy for the Rays. The tools are certainly appealing; legitimate center field defense isn't easy to come by, his arm is solid, and he has the speed to steal some bases too. He can put bat on ball and has gap-to-gap power. He's a left-handed bat, but he hasn't shown any consistent splits throughout his career.

Last night, he made a one inning debut in center field as the Rays officially advanced to the playoffs. With his ability, I don't expect Kiermaier to finish his career as another Moonlight Graham, especially in an organization that values contributions from cheaper players. He may have been an afterthought when he was named BA's best defensive outfielder in the organization or assigned to the AFL, but that isn't the case anymore after making his debut on the national stage.

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