Assessing Kevin Kiermaier's Status as a Ray Amidst Season-Ending Injury

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The Tampa Bay Rays Kevin Kiermaier, known for his defensive heroics that has prompted St. Pete to christen him 'The Outlaw,' opted into an elective surgery to repair a damaged labrum. The surgery has effectively ended his season and with his six-year contract extension signed in 2017 on the precipice of elapsing, the Rays have a decision to make that could prove to be polarizing in the offseason.

By any measurement, Kiermaier is the ultimate teammate. He's popular in the clubhouse, he's always smiling and when he's on the field, Kiermaier plays harder than anybody else. Not to mention, he's been the face of the Tampa Bay Rays since the club traded third base stalwart Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants ahead of the 2018 season. Though he's not been the ballclub's best player, he's their most popular.

That being said, sometimes popularity isn't quite enough. With a team that made a run to the World Series before falling to the juggernaut Dodgers just two years ago, the team is in win-now mode. They have their core: Shane McClanahan, Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, Shane Baz and Francisco Mejia. With Lowe and Franco already locked up, the team will likely look at ways to shed payroll to keep the remaining four pieces in Tampa long-term. Kiermaier, who has a team option worth $13MM may not be a conducive piece for a team that wants to win in the most efficient way possible.

Kiermaier is one of the game's top defensive centerfielders, posting a gaudy 17.6 defensive WAR in his Rays tenure by Baseball Reference measurements. He's done so in only 914 games on top of that. For comparison, Braves legend Andruw Jones, considered by many to be the greatest defender in the history of position, posted an 18.1 dWAR in his first 981 games from 1996-2002. It's there-within that lays the issue, though, as AJ25 had played in 67 more games across the first six seasons he saw big league action in versus Kiermaier who's seen action in ten separate seasons.

Granted, 2013 hardly counts for Kiermaier because he was called up strictly for Game 163 in Arlington. Barring 2013 and the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, Kiermaier's played in an average of just over 100 games each season he's counted on to be a fixture in the lineup. No amount of superb play in the field will make up for the lack of availability, and that's before one considers his offensive woes.

Kiermaier's offense is underwhelming, to put it pleasantly. Kiermaier's career OPS+ is a modest 98, with league-average production sitting at 100. He gets a base hit once in approximately every four at-bats, which is enough to keep you in the big leagues for a number of years. After that, however, the fluidity begins to deteriorate. Kiermaier just wrapped up his third season where he's finished with a body of work that's presented an OPS below .700, in a league where .750 is usually the average throughout his career. It's worth noting that in 2022 specifically, the league average OPS is only a pedestrian .708 heading into Friday night.

Kiermaier doesn't necessarily have pop to supplement a batting average that's been below the .240 benchmark in four of the last five campaigns, with his career-high sitting pretty at 15; nor does he have the plate discipline, with 2016 being the only year in his career he walked on even just 40 occasions. With his speed and athleticism, Kiermaier has the makeup of a solid big league hitter despite the evident holes in his swing, but he hits the ball to the opposite field less than 15% on average making him rather predictable and easy to shift.

A slightly below-average offensive hitter when healthy can be extremely valuable when their glove is as sensational as Kiermaier's, but he's hardly healthy and since he's arrived on the scene, he's become the prototypical Tampa Bay Ray. The Rays now have Manuel Margot, Josh Lowe, Harold Ramirez and the newly acquired Jose Siri who all have similar makeup to the 32-year-old veteran, while being significantly younger, a lot more inexpensive and hopefully far more durable. For a team that has multiple Kiermaier-like players on their depth chart, the highest-paid player on the Rays in 2023 probably shouldn't be Kiermaier himself, making a $2.5MM buyout the probable avenue for the front office.

The writing was on the wall for Kiermaier with the Rays, who attempted to shed his salary during the 2021 Trade Deadline as The Chicago Cubs almost took the remainder of his deal in a proposal that would've brought 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant to the Tampa Bay area. The Cubs pivoted from that, sending Bryant to a Bay area on a separate coast. It wouldn't be that unorthodox to see the Rays use his injury as an opportunity to decline his option, pick him up for significantly less on a one-year bargain.

The Rays did that with Mike Zunino, also out with a season-ending injury, heading into the 2021 season as Zunino became an All-Star for the first time in his MLB career. That said, it's almost a formality that Kiermaier's salary won't be picked up, allowing him to test the open market for the first time in his career, ultimately meaning that he's most-likely played his final game for the home team at Tropicana Field.

It was a solid run for Kiermaier and the Rays. It's a tenure that saw him win an American League pennant, multiple Gold Glove awards and post the fifth highest WAR in franchise history. He's also played in more games than all but four Rays in history, with the only player in front of him on the games played list that's behind him in WAR being BJ Upton. There's a definitive era for Kiermaier's time with the team that's up there with the likes of Crawford and Longoria in Rays lore, but perhaps it's time to bid adieu to St. Pete's favorite Outlaw.

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