Kevin Kiermaier was incredible for the Tampa Bay Rays when he arrived in the major leagues to stay in 2014, and his start to this season has been quite reminiscent of that. After his first six games he was hitting .381 with 2 home runs and 4 doubles. He cooled off some over the next few games, but after playing in 13 of the Rays’ first 16 games, Kiermaier has a .282/.317/.615 line with a team-leading 5 doubles. He also leads the team in slugging percentage while ranking third in batting average.
Kiermaier has exceeded expectations so far as he has been one of the most productive hitters on the team. There are competing forces at play for Kiermaier–on the one hand, he is a young player who should only improve, but on the other, he appeared to play over his head last season and struggled to end the year. Even if Kiermaier is not going to end up as an offensive force, however, there is more reason for optimism that he can continue hitting well enough to be a centerfield starter.
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One thing Kiermaier doesn’t need to be reminded of is how to hustle. In the Rays’ April 12th win against the Miami Marlins he turned two routine singles into doubles by taking advantage of lackadaisical play from Ichiro Suzuki and Giancarlo Stanton. Suzuki was slow getting to a ball Kiermaier punched into center, and Kiermaier turned on his speed to hustle into second. Later in the game, he alertly ran to second while Stanton was holding the ball in right, trying to decide where to throw. Those kind of plays invigorate and inspire a team.
Before the season started, manager Kevin Cash named Kiermaier his starting center fielder against right handed pitching, but planned to sit him against left-handers. There were certainly reasons for that as Kiermaier only hit .203 against lefties in 2014. However, that plan changed after injuries to James Loney and John Jaso, and Kiermaier has took advantage, hitting .273 with a triple and a double against lefties so far.
It is a small sample size, but Kiermaier doesn’t need to hit much given his defense, and he deserves a chance. He hit decently against southpaws in the minor leagues, and given the struggles so many of the Rays are having with the bat lately, Cash might want to give Kiermaier a few more chances.
I expect Kiermaier to continue to exceed expectations this season and perhaps even grow into an All-Star. We know what he can do defensively, and now he is impressing at the plate once again. Kiermaier is making himself into a part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ future, and if he keeps hitting, he could become better known around baseball before long.