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Kiermaier proves to be Rays' most indispensable player

The Rays have been basically a .500 team with Kevin Kiermaier in the lineup. They were 14-35 while he was on the disabled list.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

The Rays have been basically a .500 team with Kevin Kiermaier in the lineup. They were 14-35 while he was on the disabled list.

ST. PETERSBURG — This bad Rays season has actually yielded some good, headlined by Evan Longoria's resurrection as their best and most valuable player, an award that, assuming the baseball writers are seeing straight, will be formally bestowed Friday.

But something else has become obvious — or more obvious — over the slog of the past six months, which is that centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier is the Rays' most indispensable player.

What Kiermaier does in the field, on the bases and, increasingly so, at the plate — unquestionably, unequivocally, undeniably and a few other un- words — makes him the individual player who can have the biggest impact on the team on a daily basis.

"It's very tough," manager Kevin Cash said, "to quantify what KK does for us."

The Rays got a painful reminder during the seven weeks Kiermaier missed after breaking his left hand in mid May. And it didn't really require crunching any more complex numbers than this to show it:

Before he got hurt, the Rays were 20-19. Since he returned at the All-Star break, they are 30-31.

Which pretty much makes their 14-35 record when he was sidelined — not coincidentally including the 3-22 crash going into the All-Star break — a prime reason they are where they are.

"He's a very hard guy to play without once you get used to playing with him," outfield/first-base coach Rocco Baldelli said. "It seems like he affects pretty much every game he plays in."

Which only reinforces that Kiermaier is atop the list of players who can be most integral if next season is to turn out better than this one.

Cash routinely says Kiermaier is "the best defensive player in the game," and that's really not hyperbolic given his range, his athleticism, his arm and his increasing baseball savvy.

Despite the time missed, Kiermaier again leads all centerfielders with 22 defensive runs saved while ranking well in other defensive metrics and, depending on the increasing politics of the voting among American League coaches and managers, could still win a deserved second Gold Glove award.

Here's a simpler measure: the quotient of confidence Rays starters have when they know he'll be playing behind them.

"We talk about it — we feel like if he's in the starting lineup, he's going to save us at least one run every game," starter Drew Smyly said. "He just catches everything. It's crazy how much ground he can cover. He's just that good. … He's a complete game-changer."

Kiermaier has become even more valuable with the impressive expansion of his offensive game — dropping (or even just showing) bunts, going the other way, working counts — since being moved in early August to the No. 2 spot in the order.

He has hit .284 with an .828 on-base plus slugging percentage in the 42 games since, raising his average nearly 40 points and his OPS almost 70, with the potential for better. He also has become a bolder and better basestealer. (Why he didn't when hitting eighth is a bit unclear, though.)

All of which means that by staying healthy and continuing to improve offensively, Kiermaier could make the biggest difference in the Rays being better in 2017.

Here are four others players — subject to revision pending what they do in leftfield and at catcher — who can have a major impact:

Starter Alex Cobb

With Cobb having recovered from Tommy John surgery and, based on his first three starts, anyway, regained previous form, the Rays will benefit significantly from having a veteran leader (albeit in his last year before free agency) at the front of their rotation, someone who has been and done. Or, they have the additional depth, with seven or eight legit starters, to make a trade (Chris Archer? Jake Odorizzi? Smyly? Even Cobb?) to fill one of their other holes.

DH/outfielder Corey Dickerson

The defensive deficiencies and overall offensive numbers, a .243 average and .752 OPS, were disappointing, even more so at home, .202 and .601. But the adjustment to the Trop, the AL and the DH role should be behind him, and the power potential is promising, given he has 21 homers and 57 of 112 hits for extra bases.

Rightfielder Steven Souza Jr.

There seems to always be something with Souza, whom the Rays acquired at a high cost expecting him to be an impact player by now. The shift to a "try easier" approach at the plate has made for a better September, but the inconsistencies at the plate and erratic play in the field have to be cleaned up. Also of concern, he will be coming into camp off hip surgery.

Reliever Brad Boxberger

The emergence of Alex Colome as a top-notch closer in Boxberger's injury absences was another of the few 2016 success stories. But having Boxberger, assuming he isn't traded going into his first season of arbitration eligibility, return to 2014-15 form (.194 opponents average, 34.4 percent strikeout rate) and give the Rays a second lockdown option in a bullpen in glaring need would be a big improvement.

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

Kiermaier proves to be Rays' most indispensable player 09/19/16 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2016 8:39pm]
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