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Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier: ‘The best is yet to come’

Tampa Bay’s center fielder has gone from near panic over the Rays’ trade for Manuel Margot to predicting great things from his new hitting approach.
With a GoPro camera strapped to his head, Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays celebrate on the field after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays to clinch a wild-card playoff birth. Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Toronto, Canada [DIRK SHADD   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times]
With a GoPro camera strapped to his head, Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays celebrate on the field after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays to clinch a wild-card playoff birth. Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Toronto, Canada [DIRK SHADD | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]

PORT CHARLOTTE — If you thought the Rays’ Saturday night acquisition of Manuel Margot meant that Kevin Kiermaier was going to be traded, you weren’t alone.

Kiermaier was a couple of drinks into celebrating a friend’s wedding when he heard they traded for the defensively elite centerfielder from San Diego.

“My stomach dropped,’’ Kiermaier relayed Tuesday after reporting early for spring training. “It surprised me. You have natural thoughts that go into your head. What's the writing on the wall? What does this mean?

"So, me being who I am, I texted (manager Kevin) Cash and asked him. He actually gave me a call … and said I have nothing to worry about, and that made me feel really good. (General manager) Erik Neander shot me a text, pretty much said the same thing.

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"But I was panicking a little bit. That’s just because how much I love being here and how much I love being a part of this. And I think for the first time ever, we’ve been in a position where we have another guy who can do what I can do out there defensively, I guess.

“So, just being realistic, honest with my thoughts, I wanted clarification," he added. "And I got it. And that made me feel a lot better about myself.’’

How the Rays are going to use the dynamic duo defensively isn’t yet clear, with Margot not only filling in for Kiermaier at times but perhaps playing somewhat regularly alongside him in left.

“I’m excited,’’ Kiermaier said. “You have an elite guy like that, it’s a lot of fun to just envision what we could do out there.’’

Manuel Margot of the Tampa Bay Rays in the batting cage during a spring training workout day at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, FL on February 11, 2020. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays]

Margot, who was sitting home in the Dominican Republic playing with his kids when he got the “quite surprising” call, is also excited about the pairing.

“You see a lot of (Kiermaier’s) highlights every day, and I see them all the time,’’ Margot said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s going to be an honor playing alongside him and having him as a teammate.’’

Kiermaier, as you may have noticed, is never short of self-confidence.

And he insists he has even more reason, beyond the potential of the team to again compete for a playoff spot, to be excited about this season.

In short, because he worked extensively this winter with an outside hitting coach (though with the Rays’ okay) to “totally start from scratch” and change to a “completely different” hitting approach that will have him using all fields more, thus pulling the ball into the shift less, while being more consistently productive, getting more out of his skills than a .245 career average and .723 OPS.

In long, well, we’ll let him tell you.

"I can run the bases, I play defense better than anyone in baseball,'' Kiermaier said. "Everything needs to come full circle with my offensive production. I’ve known that for years. It’s just one of those things I’ve been confident in doing what I’ve done my whole life and that’s just kind of teaching myself over the years. I’ve had help from hitting coaches in our organization and whatnot, but at the end of the day, I have to go up there and do what feels comfortable to me.

"But I've expanded my horizons, gotten out of my comfort zone and went and saw someone to get different ideas on body positions. I've never really been open to that in the past because I’ve proven I could do things my way.

“But my way I haven’t scratched the surface with my potential," he said. "The main thing I battle every year is consistency. I know that everything I’ve done this offseason, and I’ve put more work into my offensive side of the game, my swing approach, more than ever."

Kiermaier said he saw results from offseason batting practices at the University of Tampa.

“It might look the same to some people, but it’s completely different,” he said. "And it’s all for the better. I feel as dangerous as ever.’’

Kiermaier said he wanted to learn more from the science side so he could be in better control of his body and make small changes to make him more consistent in his set-up and swing. He went to a coach who works for another team, whom he declined to identify, because he “wanted to get with someone who did the old-school stuff and the new-school stuff.’’

While he considers himself “no slouch at the plate” and able to do damage, he was driven to get better, figuring he “led the league in swings this off-season.’’

Hitting coach Chad Mottola said the Rays had no issue with Kiermaier seeking outside coaching, noting the volume of new information and training methods available, since he kept them in the loop. “These are all things we have wanted to do in the past,’’ he said. “So if a different voice for a whole offseason and reps with independent sources rings a bell, we’re all for it.’’

Related: American League transition should be a good thing for Rays’ Jose Martinez

Kiermaier, who turns 30 in April, is adamant the new approach will work.

“I truly believe the best is yet to come,’’ he said. “I’ve shown signs of being really good, and I’ve shown I can be really bad. If I can really consistent, swing at strikes, lay off bad pitches, use all fields and let my speed and athleticism take over, it’s fun to envision what I believe is going to happen.’’

That vision is on this season, which is probably wise.

Plus, those no-trade assurances from Cash and Neander may have a shelf life, as Kiermaier is making $10 million this season, then $11.5 million in 2021, $12 million in 2022 and either a $13 million option or $2.5 million buyout for 2023.

“At the end of the day, this is always a business, and you can never forget that,’’ Kiermaier said. “I’m here, though. And this is all I know.’’

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

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