Kevin Kiermaier has been a fixture in Rays-related trade rumors for some years now, and this trend continued when Tampa reportedly discussed Kiermaier with the Phillies and other teams just prior to the start of the lockout. Kiermaier’s contract (a six-year, $53.5MM extension signed in March 2017) is relatively outsized by the Rays’ modest payroll standards, and as Kiermaier is now entering the final year of that deal, there stands a greater chance that a team in need of center field help will finally step in to make Kiermaier off the Rays’ books.
Any number of teams stand out as possible fits in a Kiermaier trade based on a variety of factors, including how much of the $14.5MM still owed to Kiermaier can best be absorbed into another team’s payroll. It’s possible Tampa Bay might be open to a deal that sees the Rays accept a minimal prospect return in exchange for a team simply taking all of Kiermaier’s remaining salary, or perhaps the Rays might add a prospect along with Kiermaier to facilitate this semi-salary dump.
But, there’s another wrinkle that could be involved in any Kiermaier negotiations. If such talks involve how much of Kiermaier’s salary will be covered by either side, it seems likely that at least one team has asked the Rays “hey, what about your other less-expensive center fielder entering his last year of team control?”
That would be Manuel Margot, scheduled for free agency following the 2022 season and projected to earn $5MM in his final year of arbitration eligibility. Seen as a natural center field successor to Kiermaier in the event of a trade, Margot would likely be a replacement for 2022 alone, given how the Rays generally only look to extend players in the early stages of their careers. If Margot isn’t a long-term answer, therefore, he himself stands out as a trade chip for a Rays front office that has traditionally been open to dealing almost anyone on their roster.
Margot is no stranger to switching teams, having already been part of two prominent trades in his career. The outfielder was part of the four-player package dealt from the Red Sox to the Padres for Craig Kimbrel in November 2015, and then Padres then shipped him to Tampa almost exactly two years ago to the day. That deal saw the Padres acquire Emilio Pagan for Margot and prospect Logan Driscoll, and it’s a trade that now looks like a solid win for the Rays given how Pagan has struggled over his two years in San Diego.
Margot, meanwhile, has contributed 2.0 fWAR over his 172 games in a Rays uniform, largely due to his excellent defense. As per Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, in fact, Margot was the best overall defensive outfielder in baseball last year, with a league-best +16 OAA. The UZR/150 (+3.7) and Defensive Runs Saved (+13) metrics largely back up that assessment, as Margot played 656 2/3 innings in right field, 182 innings in center, and 122 2/3 innings in left in 2021.
Offensively, Margot is much more of a mixed bag. His 95 wRC+ and 96 OPS+ over his two seasons in Tampa is only slightly below average, and a .258/.317/.375 slash line over 623 plate appearances is passable considering what Margot brings to the table with his glovework. Margot also doesn’t strike out often, and has excellent speed, even if that speed has only translated into moderate success on the basepaths (25 steals in 37 chances with the Rays).
In general, however, Margot isn’t a major threat at the dish. He hasn’t shown much power or an ability to consistently draw walks, and while Margot may make plenty of contact, the quality of that contact is well below-average. Margot’s hard-hit ball rates and barrel rates have both been subpar every season from 2017-21. As one might expect from a right-handed bat, Margot’s career splits against southpaws (.760 OPS) are better than his numbers against righty pitching (.663 OPS).
All in all, Margot may not be an ideal fit as an everyday outfielder, but he is an ideal fourth outfielder or platoon partner. His ability to play all over the outfield makes Margot a particularly valuable piece for a Rays team that values flexibility, as Margot is a natural complement to the left-handed hitting Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, and Brett Phillips (plus Margot has also spelled the righty-swinging Randy Arozarena on occasion).
While he might be a good roster fit for the Rays, however, is Margot a fit for $5MM? That projected figure would represent the fifth-highest 2022 salary on Tampa Bay’s books, behind Kiermaier, Corey Kluber ($8MM), Mike Zunino ($7MM) and Tyler Glasnow’s $5.8MM arbitration projection. Since the Rays are always keeping a close eye on their budget, Margot’s $5MM figure may be deemed too pricey for what he brings in a backup outfield role.
Phillips, it should be noted, has hit .204/.301/.421 in 351 PA over the last two seasons. It isn’t exactly an offensive breakout, but it does represent a 101 wRC+/102 OPS+ that is at least a tick higher than Margot, and Phillips also brings comparable fielding and speed.
Top prospect Josh Lowe is also waiting in the wings, after playing his first two MLB games last season. Lowe is eyed as the longer-term answer in center field anyway, and seems likely to get a good chunk of playing time in 2022 regardless of who may or may not still be around in the Rays’ outfield.
There would be risk in counting on Lowe and Phillips to handle center field in the event of another Kiermaier absence, as Kiermaier’s well-documented injury history means that Tampa Bay simply can’t count on him for a full season. Arozarena or even switch-hitter Vidal Brujan could be deployed in center field in a pinch, to add a right-handed element to a center field mix that would be lefty-heavy if Margot wasn’t around. We also can’t rule out the possibility that the Rays could trade Margot and then acquire another outfielder in a future move, finding another Margot-esque player on the market available at a lower cost.
As mentioned earlier, you really can’t rule much out when it comes to potential Rays trades. It stands to reason that Kiermaier would be the preferred trade chip, yet if the questions about his health and salary prove to be too much of an obstacle, Tampa Bay might pivot to the next name down on the center field depth chart. Even if Margot lacks Kiermaier’s upside as an everyday player, his lower salary and comparable skillset would probably appeal to roughly the same number of outfield-needy teams. If anything, Margot’s lower salary might even bring more teams into the mix.