In what is becoming an annual occurrence for the best outfield defender in baseball, Kevin Kiermaier will miss somewhere between eight and 13 weeks of the 2018 season with a right thumb injury incurred on the base paths. He will require surgery, per the team press release:
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier has been diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb and has been placed on the 10-day disabled list. The injury will require surgery, which will be scheduled in the coming days.
Kiermaier sustained the injury sliding into second base in the first inning of yesterday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The diagnosis came this morning after he underwent an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Kiermaier, who turns 28 on Sunday [...] is one of eight players with double-digit home runs and stolen bases in each of the last three seasons, and one of three AL outfielders to do that along with Mookie Betts (Boston Red Sox) and Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels).
Kevin Kiermaier missed 10 weeks last season due to a hip fracture incurred running through first base, which caused him to miss the innings/games cutoff for his third consecutive gold glove in 2017. This injury timeline will cause him to miss it again.
2018 was not destined to be Kiermaier’s year, just as it never was to be for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Outlaw entered the season battling an illness he had not shaken throughout the month of April, and was even told not to come to the field when the Rays were at Fenway Park. Once he returned to the clubhouse, KK was remained under the weather and then boarded the plane to Chicago where the field was covered in snow. He also fouled a ball off his foot, causing a bone bruise that left him limping for a few days. As of his injury yesterday, it was not clear Kiermaier had fully recovered from his month-long dalliance with flu like symptoms.
Due to a gutted Rays roster in the midst of a rebuild, Kiermaier was projected to be the best hitter on the worst offense in baseball (depending on your assessment of Brad Miller). Despite the manager’s confidence to bat him second against both hands, The Outlaw had not yet answered the call at the plate, with only two extra base hits to his name and no home runs. Hitless in six of twelve games played, it was an anemic start. In total, Kiermaier held a .163 AVG and .250 OBP with one stolen base and one run batted in.
Simply put: not enough.
Beyond KK’s muted demeanor amidst his battle with illness has been a sense that he was not ready to be what the Rays wanted him to become, as indicated by questions on leadership he received during the off-season.
In interview with Neil Solondz on the This Week in Rays Baseball podcast, Kiermaier was open about his eschewing of a leadership role, revealing his opinion that leadership was a responsibility to be shared. With the vast majority of the Rays veterans traded or departed, management easily could have assumed “This is Kevin Kiermaier’s clubhouse now,” but that was a mantle he was not ready to take on.
Ultimately the Rays want Kevin Kiermaier to be healthy, successful, his own man, but whatever the Rays expected to get out of Kiermaier in 2018, nothing new had been offered to fill the vacuum Longoria and company left behind when they were shown the door.
Now Kiermaier’s absence will add to that vacuum, as he’ll be missing from the Rays line up physically in the same way he was metaphorically in the early running, at best until June, at most until after the All-Star break.
Fortunately, if you can call any aspect of the Rays roster construction fortunate in 2018, Tampa Bay has never been better braced for the loss of KK from the lineup, with three other center fielders on the roster: Carlos Gomez (RF), Mallex Smith (Bench), and newly promoted prospect Johnny Field. All are capable of manning KK’s position until he returns.
And he will return. Kiermaier might have been slow out of the gate, but he is the longterm answer in center field for the Tampa Bay Rays in good times and bad.
Kiermaier signed a six year, $53 million deal before the 2017 season, and given the opportunity to do it all over again, the front office would gladly offer him the same deal. The rebuild will eventually end, and the Rays will need a healthy Kiermaier when that time comes.
Perhaps this is an overly dramatic telling of KK’s need for surgery. It’s a unique injury for a unique player whose team is going nowhere at a time he was personally floundering, but it seems important to capture how much of a ghost Kiermaier was compared to his last three seasons of play.
This multi-month break will be his opportunity to rebuild just as the Rays do the same.