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Should the Rays extend Kevin Kiermaier?

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On the Rays' off day, Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin published a think piece about Kevin Kiermaier, and whether it is time for the Rays to offer a contract extension to their center fielder.

A gold glove finalist in 2014 for half a season's worth of work in right field, Kiermaier is an obvious candidate for fan favorite with his deep blue eyes and show-stopping defense, and the numbers back that up. On the defense, at least. Here's Topkin's summary:

Some already consider Kiermaier among the game's best. The Wins Above Replacement metric calculated by baseball-reference.com that factors in defense has Kiermaier as the seventh most valuable position player in the game, with a 6.4 WAR. That's behind league MVP candidates Bryce Harper (8.0) and Josh Donaldson (7.6), behind All-Stars Mike Trout (7.5), Eric Goldschmidt (7.5), Joey Votto (6.7) and Lorenzo Cain (6.6), and behind no one else.

In the article, Topkin calls Keirmaier a clubhouse favorite, and quotes Evan Longoria postulating that KK will soon become a five-tool player. If the line drives keep leaving the ballpark like they have over the past month, that just might be possible.

Kiermaier is the major league leader in triples this season, and leads the league in average distance covered per play (according to MLB Advanced Madia's Statcast) averaging 57.69 feet.

Jeff Sullivan just published an article on Fox Sports this morning, also about Kiermaier this morning, and shined some light on the defensive metrics as well. Behind the link, you'll find Kiermaier is the league leader in Defensive Runs Saved per 1,000 innings, a score of +38. That's the best score by that metric since it was invented in 2003.

As a counting stat, Defensive Runs Saved gives Kiermaier even more distinction this season. Over 968 innings, this mark claims he has saved 37 runs in total. The next closest score at any position in baseball is Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford's 21 runs saved, and the season isn't over yet.

Furthermore, if Ultimate Zone Rating is your cup of tea, Kiermaier is an extreme outlier as well. Among qualified players, he owns a score of 25.5, again the best in baseball, with his /150 metric nearly double the second best player in baseball (44.3, compared to 22.6). I'm not a fan of UZR, but if you can land in the extremes of the metric, it's quite notable. Kiermaier isn't just an extreme, he's exceptional. No, transcendent.

So back to Topkin's question. Is this a player the Rays should consider extending? My first instinct is to say "Of course!" He's really freaking good at that thing called baseball, why wouldn't you?

Well, for one, a budget-conscious team needs to remain budget-conscious. Kiermaier is currently 25 years old and making the league minimum, and he will continue making the league minimum through 2017. The Rays and the player then enter into arbitration negotiations in the 2018-2020 seasons (unless he achieves early-arbitration in 2017 through "Super Two" status).He will not become a free agent until his age-31 season.

The Rookie Contract

Let's take a moment to think about baseball contracts. On the free agent market, players generally get paid proportionally to how well they are expected to help their team win. Right now, this comes out to around $7 million for every Win Above Replacement (WAR) they're projected for.

But players don't get to enter the free agent market until they've played a full six years. For the first three years they are paid the league minimum. For the next three, they enter arbitration, wherein they are paid a fraction of their free-market worth. Generally speaking this amounts to 40% of their free-market worth in year one of arbitration, 60% in year two, and 80% in year three (there's an exception for players who reach "Super Two" status, but don't bother with it for now—it doesn't change the numbers in KK's case that much).

This all means that all of the best value in baseball is to be found in the top players who are still playing out their rookie contracts. Kevin Kiermaier is one of those. Here are some projections for his next several years.

Year Age WAR $/WAR Value Salary Surplus Value
2015 25 6.5 7.0 45.5 0.5 45.0
2016 26 6 7.2 43.3 0.5 42.8
2017 27 5.5 7.4 40.8 0.5 40.3
2018 28 5 7.6 38.2 15.2 23.0
2019 29 4.5 7.9 35.5 21 14.5
2020 30 4 8.1 32.5 25 7.5

We've knocked off half a win from the projection each year to adjust for risk of injury and decline. We've also added some salary inflation. Still, the value the Rays are set to gain from Kevin Kiermaier is clearly huge, and it's actually even larger than what we've shown here. Players like KK, whose production comes mostly in the form of defense, are generally underpaid in arbitration, so he's unlikely to actually make the numbers shown here for years four, five, and six.

All in all, it's clear that the value the Rays are set to gain is immense.

That's not just a number on a spreadsheet. It's the savings from Kevin Kiermaier that might allow the Rays to go out and sign a decent DH next season, or to bring in a veteran relief pitcher to shore up a shaky bullpen.

So does a contract buyout and extension make business sense? If they were to offer one, the Rays would be giving up value at the front of the deal for the privilege of paying Kevin Kiermaier when he's 31, 32, and maybe 33. The year 2021 is a long ways away. How confident are you that this is something the Rays should invest in?

Projecting Kiermaier

Right now, Kevin Kiermaier's game is built on defense, and his defense is built on speed, which doesn't necessarily age well. How fast will KK's first step be after six years on AstroTurf?

When Zobrist returned to the Trop with the Royals a week ago, he was quick to say how nice it was to play on grass, and he spends the majority of his time on the infield dirt. But even if Kiermaier can avoid the injury risk of artificial surfaces, his reckless abandon on the field presents just as much of a risk.

Kiermaier was the star of sports center when he stole a home run by leaping above the fence earlier this week, but less talked about is the sprained ankle he received upon landing. Kiermaier is also playing this season on an injured thumb. A perplexing thought: Is he acheiving his potential at the plate in spite of the thumb? Is the thumb holding him back? Could he be hitting more dingers? He's an unknown quantity, as likely to succeed as he is an injury risk.

You'll find few people who are as unabashed a fan of Kevin Kiermaier as I am. Many scoffed last year when I highlighted the Oliver projections that said Kiermaier could be worth five wins above replacement, and he nearly reached that mark. Others on our own masthead still scoff at the accolades someone like Chris Archer might throw the center fielder's way:

"He's one of those special athletes that just happens to be playing baseball," ace Chris Archer said. "I'm sure if he focused his attention on basketball when he was younger he could be a dynamic point guard, or on football and he could be a defensive back or wide receiver or quarterback ....

"That type of athlete is the Trout-ish, the McCutchen-ish, the Puig-ish. He's different stature than those guys, but he's in the same class of athleticism. And it's scary because I don't know what his potential is going to be."

That's some lofty potential, and while Kiermaier is verifiable a five-win player, I'm not so certain he's destined for the same status as those other guys. But what if he is? We just don't know what Kevin Kiermaier will be.

He's the best defender in baseball bar none, but how many players sustain that status? He's hurt himself before, he could hurt himself again. Kiermaier is getting better all the time, but his bat is wildly inconsistent. In the first half this season, his infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) was a mere 6.1%. In the second half, it's 31.3%. His first half wRC+ was nine points below average at 91, in the second half it's 107. And then there's that pesky thumb. What is he?

The Other Comparable

Archer threw out Trout, McCutchen, and Puig as possible comparables for Kevin Kiermaier, and that's understandable when you only look at KK's athleticism. But there have been other great athletes in the sport who did not become all-around stars. Probably the best example of the situation Kevin Kiermaier now finds himself in is Franklin Gutierrez in 2009.

The year before, Gutierrez had played excellent defense for the Cleveland Indians, but had hit below average in 440 plate appearances. He looked better suited to be a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement than a star, and the Indians traded him to Seattle for some bullpen help. In Seattle, though, his bat exploded (by which I mean he hit at a league-average rate) in a full season of play, and he showed himself to be the best center fielder in baseball.

Just like that, a six-WAR player. He was only 26 years old.

But rather than take his place among the game's best, Gutierrez struggled with a string of injuries, and neither hit nor fielded that well ever again for a sustained period. Over the past two years his bat has come alive for Seattle in limited playing time, which might seem to indicate that you shouldn't count out the growth potential for truly elite athletes, but the rest of his career is a cautionary tale.

Conclusion

This is Kevin Kiermaier's first full season of play, and he could become something greater or he could continue being just great. Is that worth guaranteeing money, when so few aspects of sustained major league performance are guaranteed?

Archer says we all know "how conscious of finances" the front office is, and believes Kiermaier should therefore be in line for a team-friendly contract, not unlike the one he signed last season.

"Four years from now if they haven't done anything he's going to be one of those assets that are a little too expensive for the team. So if they did pursue him I would hope they could come to terms on something." - Chris Archer

This year's ace will be here for years to come, and he wants that best-in-baseball defense behind him for years to come too. It's a wonderful thing for Archer to wish for, but because of the rookie contract Kiermaier will continue to be there whether he's extended now or not. Being finance-conscious means not giving out richer contracts and assuming more risk than the Rays need to.

Arbitration for Kevin Kiermaier is a long way off and free agency even further, and for the Rays to put pen to paper to buy out any of the years Kiermaier is already set to give them, they will need to be very confident that his early 30s will be worth paying for.

This would all be easier if we knew what Kevin Kiermaier will be, but we have very little idea. There is no one quite like The Outlaw. Maybe that's worth extending in and of itself.

For consistency, the WAR numbers referenced are the same as those used by Marc Topkin, calculated by Baseball Reference. UZR and DRS numbers are from FanGraphs. Ian Malinowski contributed to some portions of this article.