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Kevin Kiermaier deal is relief for him and safe risk worth taking for Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — For a guy who said he couldn't talk much about the six-year, $53.5 million contract extension he will soon sign, Kevin Kiermaier shared how thankful, humbled and blessed he felt.

"I'm very grateful for the Rays to do this for me," he said Wednesday morning.

What Kiermaier should also feel is rewarded.

And relaxed.

Sure, he might have given up the chance for even greater earnings — in the silly-money currency of big-league baseball — had he played his way to free agency in 2021. He might have missed out on a chance to be traded to or sign in a bigger city that provided increased marketing opportunities. He could conceivably shorten his career by accelerating the wear and tear on his body in spending half his playing time (at least for the next five years) on the Trop turf.

But what Kiermaier, 27 next month, gained in the deal expected to be finalized by Monday is not just more money than he could have ever imagined growing up in modest means in Fort Wayne, Ind., but the knowledge that he doesn't ever again have to worry how his numbers on the field translate to digits in his paycheck.

"I think the best part about it as a player is you can take a deep breath and say, 'Okay, I'm good as far as finances. I have a significant amount of money, so I can invest in myself to get better,' " said starter Chris Archer, who signed a six-year pact in 2014 guaranteeing $25.5 million. "I wouldn't be surprised if KK was an All-Star this year just because he has the peace of mind of knowing he's not going anywhere and he can take care of himself and his family."

Any time the Rays make one of these long-term investments — and it has been three years since Archer's deal as talks with Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, maybe others were not concluded — they are gambling.

On health. Improved performance. And the character of the man, basically that he won't be the type to take the money, quit caring and stop playing hard.

That seems like a safe bet with Kiermaier, who has never shed his Midwestern work ethic or forgotten his rise from 31st-round draft pick in 2010 and unheralded minor-leaguer to arguably the best defensive centerfielder, if not overall defensive player, in the majors.

"From where he was and what he turned himself into, I'd say he was one of the most deserving people of all time for a contract like that," Odorizzi said. "And I think you might see the best of KK now just because of the security. You literally have to think about nothing but baseball, pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat."

Still, there is definitely risk here for the Rays.

While Kiermaier is elite defensively, with a pair of Gold Gloves, he is still refining his offensive game, learning how to maximize his tools and benefits of increased on-base percentage.

Plus so much of what he does is based on speed and athleticism, which might deteriorate as he will be in his 30s for the second half of the deal.

But the reward is what makes it worthwhile.

If Kiermaier becomes the expected superstar, they have the cost certainly and the control, in buying out two free agent years with an option for a third, to keep him around longer than they might have been able to afford. And, just being practical here, there's also the chance to trade him for a greater return given what some will view as team-friendly terms.

Spending Stu Sternberg's money is easy for others, but this is a smart move, one welcomed by players, coaches and fans. For all that is said — including on these pages — about the Rays' penurious ways, they now have committed (with options) more than $215 million in signing long-term deals to keep their biggest name players Archer, Kiermaier and Evan Longoria past free agency.

"I think as an organization we should all be happy," Longoria said. "It's a good day for the organization to be able to lock a player up like him. It's great. And I think it shows the commitment to wanting to win long-term."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com.

Kevin Kiermaier deal is relief for him and safe risk worth taking for Rays 03/15/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2017 12:32am]
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