At the conclusion of the 2017 season, the Tampa Bay Rays front office decided it was time to change directions. They traded away Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza Jr., and Corey Dickerson, overhauling the look of a team that won just 80 games. But, the biggest move they made was trading franchise cornerstone and homegrown hero Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants. In doing so, they lost the face of the franchise and said goodbye to the last remaining memories of the glory days that spanned from 2008 through 2013. David Price, James Shields, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist and others had already departed by way of a trade or free agency.
Evan Longoria was all that Rays fans had left. He was a fan favorite, the franchise’s most clutch performer, best player, and most recognizable face. He was also under contract through the 2021 season with an option for the 2022 season. He was in a position to be a lifelong Rays icon, possibly even on track to make a bid for the Hall of Fame.
The Rays had positioned themselves to have the services of an All-Star third baseman under a team friendly deal for the next five to six years. They decided instead, that he wasn’t worth the money, and dealt him to San Francisco for a trio of players who have yet to make any tangible impact at the big league level, one of which is no longer in the organization.
Now, three seasons later the question must be asked: If they refused to pay Evan Longoria, why would they even consider paying Kevin Kiermaier?
Kevin Kiermaier, who has been promoted as this era’s “face of the franchise”, is off to a slow start in 2020. Since signing a 53.5 million dollar deal that could grow to 66.5 million prior to the beginning of the 2017 season, Kevin Kiermaier has provided the Rays with stellar defense but offense that has left much to be desired — He has slashed .241/.299/.407 with a .706 OPS and a 90 OPS+. He also hit 36 homeruns and drove in 123 runs.
From 2017 to 2019 the Rays paid Kiermaier roughly 17 million dollars, which is a bargain when you look at his production in centerfield. But, after this season in which he is earning a prorated salary, Kevin Kiermaier’s earnings increase drastically and they warrant some scrutiny.
2021 will be Kiermaier’s age 31 season. They shipped Longo off ahead of his age 32 season, and he had less of an injury problem. From 2017 to 2019, Kevin Kiermaier played in only 315 of a possible 486 games, missing nearly half of the season in both 2017 and 2018 and only playing in 129 games in 2019. In the three years prior to his departure, Longoria missed a total of four games.
The big difference between the two is their production at the plate over the past two seasons. Over that time, Kiermaier’s production has been poor at best while Longoria’s production remained league average.
The Longoria trade is done and well in the past, but Kiermaier’s future in Tampa is not and looms large for this front office.
If the Rays couldn't stomach paying Evan Longoria a combined $28.3 million over the past two seasons for league average production at the plate and quality defense at the hot corner, then under no circumstances can they pay Kevin Kiermaier $22.3 million over the next two years to produce below league average numbers at the plate, despite his defensive prowess in centerfield, particularly in the age of COVID austerity.
It could also be a very hard sell for many a Rays fan who long for the days when Longoria manned the hot corner. Why would Kiermaier be worthy of a double standard from the franchise’s best player?
To clarify, this isn't a debate about whether or not the Rays should have traded Evan Longoria. This is however, a debate about the merits of paying Kevin Kiermaier when they refused to pay Evan Longoria.
If they weren't willing to bite the bullet and pay their face of the franchise and cornerstone player, then they surely can't be willing to pay Kevin Kiermaier, an aging, glove-first centerfielder with a shaky medical history and little offensive production.
If Kevin Kiermaier does in fact enter the 2021 season still donning the Rays uniform, it could mean that the Rays are lacking a trade partner that values him as they do. It could also mean that they are not willing to make the same mistake and trade away a popular player and fan favorite for pennies on the dollar in an attempt to dump salary.
With his offense and health perennially in question, finding a suitor may prove more difficult than one would think for the No. 1 center field defender in baseball, but looking back on the Rays’ history of dealings it only seems inevitable that Kevin Kiermaier is playing elsewhere in 2021.