The Rays have already made a number of moves to deal with a roster crunch and add minor league depth at a few positions, but thus far they still lack a strong candidate to back up Kevin Kiermaier in center.
Last season the Rays lost Kiermaier for two months, and concurrently lost 24 of 27 games played without him. This is no coincidence, and the depth behind Kiermaier heading into 2017 is even more suspect than last year.
Tampa Bay’s need in Center Field
After Kiermaier, next in line to play center would be right fielder Steven Souza Jr., bench outfielder Mikie Mahtook, or Triple-A outfielder Johnny Field.
We have to suspect that the Rays don’t see Souza as a good fit for center field, given their failure to play him there (he logged total of 15 center field innings in 2016, despite the Kiermaier injury). It’s likely they have enough information to support the idea that he is best suited to the corner position.
Mikie Mahtook has 200 major league innings in CF and has shown he can perform above replacement level as a defender, but the jury is out on if he could be a long term solution in case of injury. Spreadsheets love him, but the Rays have not yet tried him in a full time role. That’s telling.
Johnny Field is an outfield prospect who was left unprotected by the Rays in the Rule 5 draft, and then went unselected. He hit .273/.322/.453 and 121 wRC+ with 12 homers and 18 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A last season. Current expectations are for him to be the next fourth outfielder in line, ready to man a corner against left handed pitching.
The Free Agent Market
The Rays made one minor league signing this week, picking up former second round draft choice Shane Peterson, who dominated the high minors through 2012, but then fell apart in 2013 when the Athletics tried a promotion. The A’s failed to promote him in 2014.
Peterson had another strong showing at the minor league level in 2015 for the Brewers (144 wRC+ at Triple-A), but was below replacement level in his promotion, and was removed from the 40-man after the season. Returning to the Brewers system, Peterson got limited playing time in 2016 after an injury in mid-April derailed his season.
The nature of the injury was undisclosed, and he’s presumably past it now. I’m not convinced he’s the answer either, which leads us back to the free agent market.
Luckily for the Rays there are still several names attainable on varying levels of deals, with potential minor league signings the most intriguing. Players like Ben Revere (age 29, bats left, and hit 47 wRC+ last season), Peter Bourjos (30, bats right, hit 79 wRC+), or Craig Gentry (age 33, cut in August) who were all respected defenders at some time.
Asking for anything more, though, likely means offering a major league deal. Rajai Davis (age 36, bats right, hit wRC+ 85) can fake it in center for stretches although was somewhat exposed in the World Series (Mark will be writing on this shortly). Michael Bourn (age 34, bats left, but without clear splits) was a great defender in 2012 and is probably average today. Coco Crisp (37) is technically a free agent. Adam previously wrote about Austin Jackson, another free agent option.
For my money, I’ll bet on Colby Rasmus, who is somehow still a free agent. He is one year removed from posting a 117 wRC+ in Houston, two years removed from back-to-back competitive seasons in the AL East with Toronto. He accepted a qualifying offer for 2016 and hit poorly, but performed well above average in left field, and is capable in any outfield slot. At age 30, he bats from the left side with a 10% walk rate, and has a 29% strikeout rate that doesn’t scare away the Rays.
At the end of the day, all three major league projected players are acceptable solutions to the Rays outfield depth problem, each probably moving into a LF/DH timeshare with Corey Dickerson that could benefit all parties.
The Rays, however, can’t afford to wait for the perfect solution -- they just need a workable solution. With the off season days ticking away, we can hope that they can snag a back-up center fielder before opening day.