Someday, Kevin Kiermaier will play an entire season without significant injury. (Stop laughing, IT COULD HAPPEN!) Still, the odds of any player surviving a full season unscathed are not great; for a guy like KK, who makes Jim Edmunds looks cautious, the odds dip to that of a tribute at a two-person Hunger Games reaping.
And while the Rays have multiple options elsewhere thanks to the flexibility of guys like Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, Brandon Lowe, and Yandy Diaz, the Mallex Smith trade to Mariner navy blue and northwest green has left them without a true backup center fielder on the roster. And the field is wide open.
On the 25-Man
Tommy Pham is the clear cut leader for backing up Mr. Platinum Glove on rest-days, as well as minor owie days that won’t require an IL stint [editor’s note: that still looks weird]. Because Pham hits with the opposite hand, he will allow the Rays to gain a platoon advantage on the occasional rest day.
He’s also no slouch at the position himself. Though he is clearly a better left fielder, Pham was the Cardinals primary center fielder as recently as last season before the trade, logging 91 starts and over 800 innings. Though he did commit five errors over that time period and posted a slightly negative DRS and UZR/150, he is more than adequate for a backup center fielder.
The bigger issue with Pham would come in playing him every day should Kiermaier miss significant time, not just because of the loss in left—where Pham is stellar—but that he would likely be more exposed in a longer trial. According to Inside Edge, Pham recorded zero impossible or remote plays per Fangraphs, and only seven of 27 unlikely plays. KK, on the other hand, in addition to a career 104 defensive saved runs in center, has made almost 20% of remote plays as well as over half of the unlikely plays. While it is unfair to Pham to compare him to one of the best in the game, it does show the potential drop off we’re looking at.
Austin Meadows looks slated to be the starting right fielder, though he has some experience in center. In a super small 15 game/132 inning sample size in Pittsburgh, he put up -4 DRS, -19.3 UZR/150 and didn’t make any plays that weren’t likely. However, during parts of six minor league seasons, he played center more than any other outfield position—but again putting up pedestrian numbers and not really impressing the scouts in doing so. Coupled with the fact that the Rays likely don’t want the rookie moving around too much and that he bats with the same hand at Kiermaier, it seems probable that Meadows won’t be seeing much center field except on very rare occasions where KK might need a break against a tough righty.
Yes, I know he is faster than most people think. Sure, he has over 200 innings playing the position in the Show. But no, he isn’t viable in center field except in a crisis of infinite earths situation, as evidenced by a -3 DRS and -31.9(!) UZR/150 over those 200 innings, not to mention your own eyes if you’ve had the opportunity to see him play.
On the 40 Man
These guys aren’t likely to be on the opening day roster, but at least one of them would probably get the call if Kiermaier were to miss extended time. They are already on the 40-man roster and have options, and so can be called upon without having to make any corresponding moves to clear roster space.
Guillermo Heredia will likely be a most-days center fielder if Kiermaier goes down for an extended period time. Acquired as part of the Mallex Smith deal with Seattle, as our own Darby has written in the past, Guillermo is a mixed bag depending on what numbers you like. The Rays Erik Neander sees him as a “top line defender.” And if you believe in Statcast’s metrics, it sounds like that’s a good evaluation (See: Fielding Runs Above Average and Out of Area plays, where he does well). But Fangraphs sees him as below average, posting -10 DRS, -12.4 UZR/150, and an Inside Edge snapshot that doesn’t show him making any plays that aren’t at least Even.
Still, this is the role Heredia was acquired for. Should Kiermaier go down for an extended period, expect Heredia to get a bulk of the work in center until and unless he proves he can’t handle it.
Acquired as an infielder-slash-lottery ticket in the Hellickson deal that also brought the Rays Justin Williams, Velazquez added center field to his resume last year. Scouts love him in center, and he still has the ability to man the infield, drawing time at short, second, and third. Couple that with an offensive performance in Montgomery and Durham last year that rebounded somewhat from a multi-year slump (14 homers, 31 of 34 in steals) and Velazquez will remain very much the fall-back plan in center, as well as in 25th-man mix, especially in a reserve role.
If these guys are starting, things have gone off the rails.
30-year-old journeyman outfielder Jake Smolinski logged 577 innings in center for the A’s between 2015-2018, tallying 1 DRS and 3.5 UZR/150. He could be up to provide some injury depth at some point, but it will be a bad sign if the Rays rely on his for anything beyond that.
The Rays are still trying to find out what to do with Solak on defense. Though the bat has always played, he’s been a below average second baseman, leading to some outfield experimentation. Though mostly in left, he spent some time in center for Montgomery, showing good range but a fringy arm for the position. Still probably a year away, he could be an impact player at some point.
Carl Chester was drafted in the twelfth round out of Miami in 2017. Most expected him to struggle with the bat, but few doubted his defensive ability. Yet with two years inside the Rays system, he has a nice .301/.358/.421 slash line. He’s a long way off, likely only to start the year in High-A Port Charlotte, so if he is playing center at the Trop this year in any capacity, things have gone very, very, very wrong. But he is a center fielder of the future to keep an eye on.
Research information provided by Baseball America, StatCast, Fangraphs, and Baseball Reference.