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As Kiermaier emerges, should Rays seek long-term deal?

Kevin Kiermaier indulges in a quiet moment in the dugout during the Houston Astros versus Tampa Bay Rays game on June 12 in St. Petersburg.
Kevin Kiermaier indulges in a quiet moment in the dugout during the Houston Astros versus Tampa Bay Rays game on June 12 in St. Petersburg.
Published Sep. 4, 2015

NEW YORK — Kevin Kier­maier took another leap into prominence, and the major-league relevance he craves and deserves, with his spectacular home run-robbing catch Monday night.

Right before our eyes, Kiermaier has grown from defensive specialist at the end of 2013 to part-time starter in 2014 to everyday big-leaguer in 2015, and is on the verge of being considered a legitimate impact, even All-Star, player.

"He's one of those guys that has the potential to be a five-tool guy," Rays veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said. "One of those guys you rarely ever see."

Ask around the clubhouse and teammates don't think there is anything the outfielder can't do — citing what they already consider Gold Glove defense, game-changing speed and burgeoning power.

"He's one of those special athletes that just happens to be playing baseball," ace Chris Archer said. "I'm sure if he focused his attention on basketball when he was younger, he could be a dynamic point guard, or on football and he could be a defensive back or wide receiver or quarterback.

"That type of athlete is the Trout-ish, the McCutchen-ish, the Puig-ish. He's different stature than those guys, but he's in the same class of athleticism. And it's scary because I don't know what his potential is going to be."

Some already consider Kiermaier among the game's best. The Wins Above Replacement metric calculated by baseball-reference.com that factors in defense has Kiermaier as the seventh most valuable position player in the game, with a 6.4 WAR. That's behind league MVP candidates Bryce Harper (8.0) and Josh Donaldson (7.6), behind All-Stars Mike Trout (7.5), Paul Goldschmidt (7.5), Joey Votto (6.7) and Lorenzo Cain (6.6), and behind no one else.

Which brings us to this question: Should the Rays take a leap of their own and sign Kiermaier, 25, to a long-term deal?

Technically they don't need to anytime soon, as Kiermaier won't be eligible for the financial rewards of arbitration eligibility until at least 2017 — assuming he is a Super Two qualifier, and thus has four years — and won't be a free agent until 2021.

And, as he completes his first full major-league season, there are some things they want to see him learn to do better on the field, specifically improve his on-base percentage and overall offensive game, especially against left-handed pitchers, by taking better advantage of his speed by hitting the ball on the ground more, bunting more (and better), going to the opposite field more.

But the opportunity to sign Kiermaier now, before be blows up any further, has to be tempting them to start conversations with agent Larry Reynolds, if they haven't already, to gain the usual benefits of cost certainty and extending control into his initial free agency.

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In addition to being one of the Rays' better players, Kiermaier has quickly become one of their most popular among the fans, endearing himself with an all-out, always-hustling style of play, humble nature, congenial personality and community-oriented mentality and his matinee-idol (or would that now be Internet-idol?) good looks. Plus, he does a pretty good Jay-Z and can lip-synch with the best. What matters more to his bosses is that in addition to playing well, he is considered a good teammate and clubhouse presence.

What might a Kiermaier deal look like?

Kiermaier's biggest impact is still in the field, and though there have been advances in quantifying defensive value — he leads the majors in Defensive WAR, in Defensive Runs Saved, in Ultimate Zone Rating) and in other categories — teams are not, yet anyway, fully paying players for defense, so that might limit his value.

Also, he will turn 31 in his first free agent season, so it's fair to question how much his speed might be diminished by then, how much his body will be worn and torn by his reckless style of play.

But maybe something close to Miami's Christian Yelich, who had already won a Gold Glove and was two years younger when he signed a seven-year, $49.57 million deal this spring?

Archer, who signed a multiyear deal after his 2013 breakthrough, said it seems a no-brainer for the team to work something out.

"I think you have to," Archer said. "He's just such a special player. And we know how conscious of finances they are. Four years from now if they haven't done anything, he's going to be one of those assets that are a little too expensive for the team. So if they did pursue him, I would hope they could come to terms on something."

Kiermaier, who has grown up with the Rays since being a 31st-round pick in 2010, said he is comfortable and content and loves playing here, and would welcome the chance to stay a long, long time.

"I hope I put myself in a position where talks do come about," Kiermaier said. "Who knows what their thought process is or anything? But it's kind of crazy to think what might be possible here in the near future."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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