Coming off a World Series appearance the Tampa Bay Rays could have gone with roster stability. Instead they have decided to some uncertainty behind the plate by declining Charlie Morton and Mike Zunino’s option and DFAing Michael Perez.
The Rays like to move pieces around. Some of this has been due to financial restraints, but some has been in making bets on different players. While nobody could ever say the Rays are financially aggressive in making moves they have been very aggressive in their own way.
The biggest shock to the Rays roster would be moving on from Kevin Kiermaier, but the financial unknowns might make that a possibility.
Kiermaier is the longest tenured Ray making his Major League debut in Game 163 of the 2013 season. When Desmond Jennings was injured heading into the game the Rays called up their best defensive replacement and ended up making an appearance as a defensive replacement late in the game. In mid 2014 Kiermaier would come up for good and make centerfield at Tropicana Field a black hole for opposing offenses.
Since his regular season debut Kiermaier has put up 122 DRS, that is second in the majors behind only Andrelton Simmons 142 despite having played about 2,000 fewer innings.
By UZR Kiermaier’s 64.1 trails only Simmons 89.7 and Mookie Betts 74.9. Kiermaier has been the standard that elite centerfield defense has been judged over the last seven years.
Kiermaier has a fine career hitting line of .248/.307/.413 which equals a 97 wRC+. When you add in his defensive value he’s put up 18.8 fWAR and 27.3 rWAR. However over the last three seasons his bat has fallen off with a .222/.286/.383 line and 80 wRC+ over the last three seasons through 1,006 plate appearances. Despite the struggles at the plate he still has put up 4.4 fWAR and 6.3 rWAR over that stretch.
One criticism of his play tends to be a style that borders on reckless that has seen him only amass 500 plus plate appearances once in his career. It’s this all out style that has made Kiermaier what he is, but the cost has been missed games with random injuries.
Kiermaier is still a very solid player, but the time might be right for the Rays to move on, and the reason is financial.
Kiermaier signed a six year contract extension before the 2017 season. Without this extension Kiermaier would be headed into free agency this winter. Now two years and $26MM are left on the deal. This is a fine price for a solid defensive first player.
Last year the Rays brought in two very good defensive centerfielders in Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips. Margot has been one of the better defensive centerfielders with +26 DRS and +15.9 UZR over 3,323.2 innings in center. He filled in well for Kiermaier when he suffered with back spasms and was able to shield Kiermaier from left handed starters by only having to face left handed pitchers in 13.2% of his plate appearances in 2020.
At the trade deadline the Rays also brought in Phillips. Phillips might be best known for looking like an airplane running around the outfield after his World Series Game 4 game-winning hit, but what might surprise many is he might be Kiermaier’s equal in the outfield defensively, and I do not say that lightly.
In a very small sample of 615.1 innings that would be less than half a full season Phillips has put up 15 DRS and 13.6 UZR. So while he doesn’t have the track record of Kiermaier he looks the part. The problem has been Phillips hasn’t hit well during his short time in the majors with a .202/.284/.347 line and 67 wRC+ over 383 plate appearances. If anybody were to make the bet on an elite defender with a questionable bat it would be the Rays.
So the Rays have brought in reasonable replacements defensively. There is still debate about who is better with the bats of the three, but Kiermaier has always been about defense. The biggest fear with moving on from Kiermaier has been how big of a dropoff you’ll see in the outfield without him roaming centerfield. I think the Rays have answered some questions out there in 2020.
Last winter I began thinking about the Rays positioning themselves for a Kiermaier trade, but I expected that to be surrounding finding a home for the prospect Vidal Brujan. In Spring Training 1.0 last year he started getting reps in the outfield and was expected to get them in the 2020 Minor League season that never happened, although he could’ve been receiving reps at the Alternate Site. The Rays also made the trade for Margot late in the winter about a week before Spring Training 1.0 was set to begin.
Now we enter one of the biggest unknown markets. Many teams have talked about needing to save money this season. We’ll see how much of this is talk and how much is the reality of the situation where MLB teams weren’t able to host fans in 2020 and the outlook for 2021 remains murky at best.
In a normal situation Kiermaier’s contract looks fine, but you need a team willing to pay for the defensive value he brings. The Rays have always valued defense, but part of that has likely been under the belief it’s been undervalued in the market. So now can they trade him while getting other teams to recognize that value.
The trade simulator I have used in the past to run through some trade ideas to see if there’s something that could work out is hosted at baseballtradevalues.com. Their value on Kiermaier’s contract is -$9.7MM. So they see the contract as almost $10MM underwater.
This definitely complicates things if teams are going to be as stingy as most expect this winter. If the Rays end up trading Kiermaier the return shouldn’t be expected to be good. No team values Kiermaier like the Rays value Kiermaier, so getting anything of value in return would be a win for the front office, even if it’s a net loss on the field.
Do the Rays move Kiermaier this winter?
Kiermaier has been the face of the Rays since the Rays traded Evan Longoria. He is what the Rays value, but they have the options that might not even make the 2021 Rays worse.
The biggest concern moving on to a Margot/Phillips tandem in centerfield is that if Margot gets injured this might expose Phillips lack of bat. At the same time the Rays might think the pair of 26 year olds have better seasons on their horizons than the 30 year old Kiermaier. And if they are not up to the task, prospects are incoming via Josh Lowe and Vidal Brujan.
A year ago I thought this was the obvious move that was coming. The Rays would hope that Kiermaier rebounds some value after two subpar seasons at the plate and he did have some bounceback there, but most likely was due to being able to shield him from lefties more than any real bounceback to his prime days at the plate.
Now I’m not nearly as sure. This team is really good and outside of deciding who will catch for them there’s not any glaring holes. The team should be looking to get better rather than worse. I’m not convinced they are worse except in the depth department without Kiermaier, but it definitely would be a gamble for a team coming off a World Series appearance looking for more in 2021.
Then again, $. The Rays accepted virtually nothing in return for another team taking their starting left fielder and closer (Denard Span and Alex Colome) off their hands. Why wouldn’t they do the same now? Particularly when center is a position of depth?