The emergences of Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer have been pleasant surprises for the Tampa Bay Rays in a season of ups and downs. When Wil Myers and David DeJesus return from injury, however, the Rays will have too many outfielders. When everyone is healthy, they will have Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Kevin Kiermaier, Guyer, Myers, and Dejesus to find playing time at three outfield positions and DH, and thus they are going to have some sorting out to do.
The man who muddled up the picture is Kiermaier. Every time you expect him to come back to earth he lifts off yet again. Beginning the season, we heard that he was the Rays centerfielder of the future. Everyone knew he could pick it in the field. What wasn’t a sure thing was his bat. But going into Sunday’s game against Toronto, Kiermaier is first on the Rays in triples (4) and tied for third in home runs (8) despite playing just 48 games. He has as many RBIs as Ben Zobrist and Jennings (24) and has one more home run than Matt Joyce. Kiermaier’s play has been a source of inspiration for the entire team. His all-out style of play is infectious. Of the six outfielders, Kiermaier has the best arm and is the best defensively of the group. Maddon will have to rest Kiermaier more but, if you’re waiting for him to fail, you might be waiting a long time. How can the Rays take away much playing time from Kiermaier?
Guyer adds the same scrappy, “never quit” element that Kiermaier has. The talented outfielder is finally getting his chance in the big leagues and has remained relatively healthy. Guyer adds another stolen base threat that the Rays badly need and is very good in the field. What Tampa Bay Ray pitcher doesn’t breathe a sigh of relief when they see the outfield combination of Guyer, Jennings and Kiermaier? Given his injury history, it is probably too much to expect Guyer to be an everyday player, but Guyer is doing his best to change that. He has a .298/.351/.413 line in 118 plate appearances since overcoming a slow start. Nevertheless, it is really hard to believe Guyer’s playing time will stay as consistent when Myers and DeJesus come back.
Probably the fastest Ray, there is a lot to like about Desmond Jennings, but his inconsistency both at bat and in the field can be frustrating for fans and management. The Rays have tried to make him into a leadoff hitter, but Jennings neither gets on base nor steals enough to totally fulfill the needs of the spot. This year, Jennings is slashing a meager .230/.317/.365 from the leadoff position and has gone just 12-18 in stolen base attempts. Jennings could be falling out of favor with the Rays, and with Kiermaier playing so well Jennings might not have an everyday centerfield job for much longer. A move to left is possible, or the Rays could see what he could get at the trade deadline.
Just when you think Matt Joyce has figured it out it all, he regresses, reappears, regresses and reappears again. He has yet to crack the 20 home run mark and, after he hit just 7 home runs in the first half, it is doubtful he will this year either. The least gifted of the Rays defenders, there will always be a better choice available than Joyce defensively. He is a solid left-handed bat, and you can’t ignore that. With the Rays crowded outfield picture, though, Joyce is the most likely to be traded, and if not, his playing time will dwindle with Myers and DeJesus returning.
Wil Myers was all the talk of Rays fans and organization, but that was last year. When he was called up, the excitement was enough to get fans to actually attend Rays games. Myers won Rookie of the Year and helped Tampa get into the playoffs last year. The issue with Myers is playing the guessing game, because there are no real absolutes in his game. He can be a dominant bat and can be the easiest out in the lineup. He can be a solid defender who will only get better with time, or he can be the guy who made that play in Boston in the playoffs last year. Obviously, the Rays aren’t getting rid of Myers anytime soon and he will be an everyday outfielder when he returns. The question will be how much progress he is about to make when he does.
Finally, David DeJesus was the Rays’ best hitter (128 OPS+) before he went on the disabled list, and the Rays will have to find a place for him against right-handed pitching when he returns. Even when a lefty starts, DeJesus is very much capable of being used strategically by Maddon. In the late innings to pinch-hit or to run the bases, DeJesus has to be one of your first choices. Signed for 2015 with an option for the following year, DeJesus has the ability to make his contract look good if he continues playing well when he returns. The contract does make it more difficult to move DeJesus, but the Rays are hoping that his performance makes that something they would not want to do anyway.
The Rays have decisions to make where outfield playing time is concerned. Against right-handed pitching, their best alignment would be David DeJesus in left, Kevin Kiermaier in center, Wil Myers in right, and Matt Joyce at DH. Against lefties, meanwhile, they would be best suited to have Jennings in left, Kiermaier in center, Myers in right, and Guyer at DH. Knowing Joe Maddon there will be countless combinations, but there simply does not appear to be enough playing time to go around. Joyce and DeJesus make each other redundant while Jennings continues moving down the food chain among Rays options against right-handed pitching. Could a trade of Joyce or Jennings or maybe even both be the solution? The team has a problem to figure out once Myers and DeJesus return, but the good news for them is that it is a great problem to have.