Last season, Kevin Kiermaier came up in Game 163 for the Tampa Bay Rays was trusted for his defense in that game and the AL Wild Card game. Six months later, his defense had already won a game for the Rays. Kiermaier made his first major league start on April 12th, and it was his outfield assist in the fourth inning that proved to be the difference in the Rays’ 1-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Kiermaier has always been a superb defender, and the question was going to be whether the rest of his game could improve enough for him to be more than a fourth outfielder. To make a long story short, Kiermaier has made significant strides in every facet of his game, and the Rays will have a tough time keeping him in the minor leagues for too much longer.
To begin the season for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Kiermaier has a .304/.355/.493 line in 77 plate appearances. Last season, Kiermaier set a career-high with 28% of his hits going for extra bases. He has kept that going this season, lacing 3 doubles, 2 triples, and 2 home runs among his 21 hits. Kiermaier entered his stint at Triple-A last season with just a 69.4% stolen base success rate despite blazing speed. But he stole 7 of 8 bases in 38 games for the Bulls last year and has equaled that feat in just 18 games this season. Add in solid patience and pitch recognition along with decent hitting against lefties as a left-handed batter, and Kiermaier is getting closer and closer to big league-ready. He would be a defense-first player to begin with, but his glovework is spectacular enough for that to be worthwhile, and he has the ability to make an impact in other facets of the game as well. Kevin Kiermaier can help the Rays win games–how long will it be until the Rays let him do so?
A key question is going to be whether Kiermaier fits among the Rays’ current roster structure. Against right-handed pitching, the Rays have used David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, and Wil Myers from left to right in the outfield with Matt Joyce at DH. Against lefties, meanwhile, they have gone with Sean Rodriguez, Jennings, and Myers with Logan Forsythe at DH (or giving someone else a half-day off). Obviously the backups would lose playing time, but it is not entirely clear how Kiermaier could fit even with the starters. With Kiermaier being a young left-handed hitter, the Rays would prefer to start him mostly against righties, but there is no obvious spot for him unless the Rays rotate giving their four starting players days off. Against lefties, meanwhile, there is no issue as he could replace either Rodriguez or Forsythe. We have to assume that the Rays would not call up Kiermaier before September to be anything less than a full-time player. Are they willing to commit to the maneuvering that calling up Kiermaier would require?
With Matt Joyce under team control only through 2015, the Rays could decide to trade him this coming offseason. The Rays have a 2016 option on David DeJesus, but trading him could make even more sense. If DeJesus was dealt, the Rays could have a starting outfield of Desmond Jennings in left field, Kevin Kiermaier in center, and Wil Myers in right with Matt Joyce staying at DH. Joyce may have more trade value, but him being dealt would leave DeJesus primarily at DH, which would not be optimal. In any event, the move that the Rays would make is a long time away. The bottom line, though, is that if Kiermaier continues to establish himself, the Rays will end up with the situation they are well-known for having at starting pitcher: a surplus. Kevin Kiermaier is continuing to rise in prominence, and he may be forcing his way into playing time with the Rays this season. However, even if it is only September when he forces his way into the big league picture to stay, he has a clear opportunity for 2015. Kiermaier has the ability to be a major part of the Rays’ future, and it is just about time for that to begin.