Thursday, June 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Kevin Kiermaier brings a happy tune to Rays' spring training

PORT CHARLOTTE

Kevin Kiermaier couldn't have been more excited to report to Rays camp Monday, singing to assorted country songs as he cruised south in his new car, a 2016 Chevy Impala, then hugging just about everybody in sight as he went through a quick workout.

Coming off a breakout season capped by winning his first Gold and Platinum gloves for dazzling play in centerfield, Kiermaier had plenty to talk about.

Two messages stood out.

One, that he is now taken, sharing the (heart-) breaking news — at least to some of his many female fans — that he has a steady girlfriend, though not quite ready to provide all the details. "Five months going strong," he said. "It's going great. I'm very happy with it. It's a total change of pace for me."

The other, that he remains readily available — at least to play every day.

As much as Kiermaier accomplished last season, he, naturally, wants more. So much so that he said his only goal for the coming season is to start at least 155 games.

Which is really just a way of saying he wants the chance to stay in the lineup to face left-handed starters.

"There would be times last year when I wouldn't be starting and our pitchers would come up to me, 'Hey, why are you not playing?' And I'd say, 'Hey, do you think I asked for a day off? Because that's never going to happen.' It's one of those things where I just really think I give us the best chance of having that advantage out there with me, especially defensively," Kiermaier said.

"I know I can hit them, and I will. I think that's going to be the final thing for me just to prove to everyone that I can consistently hit lefties. Even if I don't hit them for power, and I never have, I know I can put the ball in play and put the pressure on the defense at any given time."

Kiermaier's numbers against left-handers don't necessarily show that he warrants the opportunity.

For his career, he has hit about 40 points less than against right-handers (.231 vs. .274) and has an on-base plus slugging percentage that is more than 200 points worse (.582 vs. .790), primarily due to the glaring lack of power that way.

But here's another way to look at it:

The way the Rays roster is going to be set up, assuming they part ways somehow with first baseman James Loney (and potentially the same even if they don't), when facing lefties they are likely to have eight right-handed bats in their lineup.

So if they are going to have one lefty swinger, why not have it be the best defensive player in the game? At least that way, they can maximize the opportunity to prevent runs.

Sure, there will be times when there is a better matchup with one of the other lefties, such as Corey Dickerson (who can play leftfield or DH), or Logan Morrison (left, first or DH), or Brad Miller (the primary shortstop). And there will be times, especially at home on the unforgiving Trop turf, where Kiermaier is better off getting a day off.

But, after starting 131 games last year, he can make a pretty good case.

"His game vs. left-handed pitching has definitely gotten better," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "I think he had different weapons he can use. He can use the bunt game. We saw him in the later part of the year use the other side of the field which really helps him vs. those guys. So I think it's exciting that he comes in and he wants to play that many games."

Kiermaier, 25, has other goals. He wants to be more consistent overall offensively by making the less-is-more approach he was forced into late last season by a thumb injury standard operating procedure. And he wants to be more impactful on the bases by using his speed to steal more, having yet to log even 20 in a season.

After spending five years in the minors, Kiermaier has made things happen quickly given his success, fame and the potential for a fortune. You can't really blame him for wanting more.

"I think," he said, "I've opened some eyes."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtop[email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

     
 
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