A bizarre thing has happened for the Tampa Bay Rays lately–Wil Myers isn’t in the lineup, and the Rays are actually getting more production out of right field. Kevin Kiermaier has been outstanding in the first 64 plate appearances of his major league career, and while he has only just begun proving himself as a starting option for the long-term, he will surely be a piece of the Rays’ roster moving forward. Combine Kiermaier’s breakout with Brandon Guyer doing the same plus Mikie Mahtook impressing at Triple-A, and suddenly the Rays have decisions ahead of them as they figure out their future outfield.
It is a relatively safe assumption that the Tampa Bay Rays will be carrying five outfielders moving forward. On Opening Day, those five were Desmond Jennings, Wil Myers, David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, and Brandon Guyer, but you can find a quibble for every player. Jennings and Myers have been up-and-down, DeJesus and Joyce don’t hit lefties, and Guyer has to find a way to stay off the disabled list. Kiermaier comes with his concerns as well–he still has work to do at the plate and on the basepaths–but it seems pretty clear that he should take someone’s spot for next season. The obvious candidate appears to Matt Joyce.
Joyce’s numbers this season are actually pretty good. He has a .266/.356/.388 line (112 OPS+), showing streakiness once again and doing all of his work against right-handed pitching, but showing strong enough overall results that the Rays can deal his limitations. On the negative side, though, Joyce is under control for just two more seasons and plays the worst defense of any Rays outfielder. It is not as though Joyce is a bad player, but combine all of his concerning factors and the Rays may be best off dealing him, especially if they can get back a prospect of value. Joyce has come up as a player the Rays could trade if they fail to get back into contention, but even if they do have a remarkable turnaround, he could end up in another uniform following the season. At the end of the day, Joyce is good but inherently replaceable. He has been a solid player while the Rays have attempted to find a player capable of doing more, and now that is finally the case. Whatever happens to the Rays the coming weeks and months, do not expect Joyce with the team for Opening Day of 2015.
If the Rays deal Joyce, they have no obligation to do anything else for next season. DeJesus can slide to primary designated hitter against right-handed pitching, and Jennings, Myers, Kiermaier, and Guyer can receive the majority of playing time in the outfield. Even if Kiermaier falls back to earth, him and Guyer would make a fine platoon. We also haven’t even mentioned Sean Rodriguez yet. Eventually, though, the Rays will have more choices coming. Jennings has three years left under contract–he is currently the Rays’ best option in centerfield, but the Rays ever tire of him never quite living up to his potential? We know that Kiermaier is more than capable of playing centerfield defensively, and if he proves himself at the plate, the Rays could find themselves with options at the corner spots. Mikie Mahtook could be a candidate for at-bats if he continues playing well at Triple-A, and even former first rounder Richie Shaffer may be a factor by the end of 2015 (likely in the outfield with James Loney and Evan Longoria at the corner infield spots). Jennings is getting more expensive, but the Rays have shown with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton that they will hold onto Jennings if he is truly their best option for a starting outfield spot. However, if that becomes less clear between the performances of Jennings and the Rays’ other outfielders, a trade could be a real possibility.
Finally, by 2016 or 2017, we will see another group of Rays outfield prospects coming to the major leagues. Neither Tyler Goeddel and Patrick Leonard is currently an outfielder, but they are likely to end up there with third base locked down and an heir hopefully apparent for James Loney by then (Casey Gillaspie is the early favorite). The one big thing to note, though, is that Goeddel, Leonard, Shaffer, and even Mahtook do not profile as centerfielders. The big question is who is in centerfield at that time–will Kiermaier be the guy or will Jennings depart after 2017 leaving an uncertain outfield picture? Andrew Toles could be the answer if he overcomes his rough start to 2014, or the Rays could acquire a hotshot prospect in a trade, but centerfield could be a major question for the Rays moving forward if Kiermaier does not prove himself capable of starting there.
There is a lot up in the air in regards to the future of the Rays’ outfield, but one thing that stands out is the importance of Kevin Kiermaier. Whether Kiermaier develops as expected will determine whether or not Desmond Jennings remains a Tampa Bay Ray for the duration of his team control and whether centerfield is a strength or weakness when Jennings departs. Thus far, Kiermaier has been everything the Rays could have hoped for, but the Rays’ outfield picture could very well hinge on how his career comes together, and we will have see how everything falls into place.