PORT CHARLOTTE — He is back, and that is no small matter. On a team of perpetual change, Kevin Kiermaier is a familiar comfort.
He is the link between Ben Zobrist and Brandon Lowe. Between Evan Longoria and Randy Arozarena. When he shows up for spring training, it’s suddenly permissible to dream of box scores and ballparks again.
Of course, by now, you should know that his spot in the lineup is not be taken for granted. There is a reason the Rays revamp their roster every winter, and history suggests it’s the explanation of how a low-revenue team competes in baseball’s swankiest division.
So, yes, Kiermaier’s No. 39 was in danger of finding the clearance rack this winter. The Rays have a bevy of outfielders, and Kiermaier’s $11.5 million salary has, through attrition, grown to become the highest on the team.
They will never acknowledge it officially, but the Rays would have been happy to have repurposed the money they will spend on Kiermaier, then turn centerfield over to a Manuel Margot/Brett Phillips platoon. And that may still be a possibility in the coming months.
But, for now, the Rays are a better team with Kiermaier in centerfield. And no one is happier about that than Kiermaier.
“You know (trades) will be talked about,” Kiermaier said Tuesday. “I wasn’t walking on egg shells saying, ‘Oh, this might be my last day.’ I can’t think like that, I can’t go about life like that. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say some thoughts crept into my mind, here or there.
“But here I am today with this beautiful logo on my chest, and hopefully I can keep it on as long as possible.”
Why wasn’t Kiermaier traded?
Probably because the Rays understand the value of defense more than most other teams. Between 2014-2020, only 19 players compiled a higher WAR (wins above replacement) than Kiermaier’s 27.4, according to baseballreference.com. And Kiermaier’s 2021 salary is lower than 18 of those players, meaning his contract is entirely commensurate with his production, even if it is pricey for Tampa Bay.
Based on statistics at fangraphs.com, there have only been a handful of outfielders with as much impact as Kiermaier defensively in the 2000s. The problem is trading for a lifetime .248 hitter who is soon to turn 31 is not a sexy move for an opposing general manager.
In other words, Kiermaier was far too valuable to give away and his price tag was too expensive to auction off.
“Generally speaking, when a player’s name is involved in any of those conversations typically the root of it is that it’s a really talented player,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “It’s a player who is in demand and desired for one reason or another.”
If you were paying close attention to the Rays in October, you also know that Kiermaier is not just another pretty glove. He hit .368 with two homers in the World Series, and his eight extra-base hits in the postseason were second only to Arozarena in Tampa Bay’s lineup.
He never has replicated his first four seasons in the big leagues, when he hit .262 and averaged 12 homers a season, but Kiermaier appears to be evolving as a hitter. While everyone else is adjusting their swings for a greater launch angle, the speedy Kiermaier has been going the opposite direction. He has increased his percentage of ground balls and line drives while cutting down on fly balls. His percentage of hard-hit balls and pitches hit on the barrel were both career highs in the shortened 2020 season.
“I think KK, year by year, is kind of learning what makes him good and how he is able to complement the rest of our lineup,” manager Kevin Cash said. “A lot of times, young players that come up with a lot of talk and a lot of hype — KK might not have come up with that but he established himself very early on as being special — and put some pressure on themselves to do more than needed. I think he’s finally recognizing that him being one of the nine in the batting order is more than enough to play his role.”
Kiermaier said a hand injury sustained in the American League Championship Series against the Astros forced him to readjust his swing in the World Series, and he thinks he may have found a better solution going forward.
“People (can) look at my numbers over the years, and say what they want to say,” Kiermaier said. “I feel like my mindset has gotten better. Sometimes my numbers are not going to prove that, but I know I’ve matured each and every year.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.