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Like it or not, the time might be right for Rays to trade Kevin Kiermaier

John Romano | If they need to free up payroll to acquire another hitter, the Rays are in a better position to trade Kiermaier rather than pitcher Blake Snell.
Rays fans have gotten used to highlight-reel catches by Kevin Kiermaier, such as this one in the 2020 ALCS against Houston, but his salary may now be too much for Tampa Bay to handle considering their other roster needs.
Rays fans have gotten used to highlight-reel catches by Kevin Kiermaier, such as this one in the 2020 ALCS against Houston, but his salary may now be too much for Tampa Bay to handle considering their other roster needs. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2020
Updated Dec. 8, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s that time again, Rays fans. That moment in every offseason when the bill for so many empty seats comes due.

You may not agree with it, you may not think it necessary, but you know in your heart that you need to be prepared for it. With attendance and revenues lower than almost every other Major League team, the Rays make up for the shortfall by manipulating their payroll in the winter.

Now, it’s possible further cuts may not be necessary this offseason. The Rays already rid themselves of their largest potential salary when they declined a $15 million option on Charlie Morton, and that might suffice in a pandemic-era marketplace.

But this one truth is hard to escape:

Fifteen different players made All-Star teams in Tampa Bay from 2010-18, and 11 of them were subsequently traded not long afterwards, three left via free agency and one remains on the roster.

That holdover is Blake Snell and eventually he will be traded, too. He knows it, the Rays know it, and you probably know it. The only variable is when the Rays decide to pull the trigger.

I would suggest this isn’t the right time.

It’s impossible to make that declaration with any certainty, because we don’t know what other teams are offering. If someone starts the conversation with an inexpensive middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and a top prospect, the Rays would be obliged to listen.

But there are two reasons why the Rays should not be in a hurry to depart with Snell in the next month or two.

No. 1, he is signed for three more seasons. That means Tampa Bay could put him on the market next season, and suitors would still be guaranteed two years of his services.

No. 2, the Rays should still be contenders in 2021 and they cannot afford to further weaken their starting rotation. Between Morton’s departure and Yonny Chirinos’ injury, the Rays have lost about 30 percent of their bulk/starter appearances from 2019-20. With the injuries to Brendan McKay and Jalen Beeks, their depth also took a hit.

So does that mean the Rays should stand pat this winter?

Not exactly. They obviously need a pair of catchers, but they could also use another thumper in the middle of the lineup. None of last winter’s acquisitions — Yoshi Tsutsugo, Hunter Renfroe, Jose Martinez — had much impact, and the Rays still have a need from the right side.

The answer could be trading Kevin Kiermaier.

That suggestion is not offered lightly. Kiermaier is an incredible defensive weapon, and one of the leaders in the Rays clubhouse. He also has embraced the Tampa Bay community like few players before him.

But with an $11.5 million salary, he accounts for almost 20 percent of the projected payroll. And with Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips as a potential righty/lefty platoon in centerfield, the Rays could still have above-average defense in centerfield with at least as much offense.

Are there drawbacks? Yes, there are. Most teams do not value defense as much as the Rays, and so Kiermaier’s trade value might not be as high as it deserves. Only one active player (Andrelton Simmons) has a higher career WAR without ever making an All-Star team than Kiermaier. That suggests a player whose contributions exceed his recognition around the game.

And even if general managers know better, it can still be a hard sell for their owners and fan bases, especially considering Kiermaier is still owed at least $26 million over the next two-plus years.

You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re essentially giving Kiermaier away in a trade, but there could be a significant benefit in shedding that salary in 2021-22 while knowing Margot and Phillips will still be around.

That $11.5 million annual paycheck could be repurposed to find a rent-a-hitter the way the Braves and Twins did the last couple of years with Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz.

All in all, it’s not a pleasant thought. Kiermaier is talented and charismatic, and his journey from a 31st-round draft pick to Gold Glove centerfielder has always resonated with Tampa Bay fans. In a perfect world, he’d continue patrolling wide swaths of Tropicana Field and eventually retire with a Rays jersey on his back.

But the Rays have always been smart enough to understand they could not afford sentimentality when it came to roster decisions. If David Price, Ben Zobrist, James Shields, Chris Archer and Evan Longoria could be traded, then Kiermaier can, too.

And, unfortunately, the time might finally be right.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.