The Rays announced they’ve officially declined their option over outfielder Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier collects a $2.5MM buyout and heads to free agency for the first time in his career.
There hasn’t much suspense with this decision, as reports emerged in early August that Tampa Bay would buy the center fielder out. That would’ve been an easy call for any team, as Kiermaier would otherwise have been in line for a $13MM salary next year. He’s coming off season-ending surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip. With a $10.5MM gap between the option value and the buyout price, cutting him loose was a particularly easy call for a Rays club that consistently runs one of the league’s lower payrolls.
The move could officially end Kiermaier’s 10-year tenure in Tampa Bay. One of the game’s best defensive outfielders at his peak, he’s collected three Gold Glove awards in his career. The Rays have long placed an emphasis on strong defense, and that focus was baked into the club’s decision to sign Kiermaier to a $53.5MM extension back in 2017. He’s battled injuries and typically been a below-average hitter over that stretch, but he’s continued to play spectacular defense when healthy enough to take the field.
Both Kiermaier and Rays executives have expressed an openness to continuing their relationship, although that’d certainly come at a lower price point than the value of the option. Meanwhile, Bob Nightengale of USA Today suggests the Cardinals could have some interest in Kiermaier as a free agent. St. Louis already has Dylan Carlson as their primary center fielder, meaning Kiermaier would likely be a fourth outfield target if the Cards did reach out to his representatives at Reynolds Sports Management.
It’s possible Kiermaier may find better opportunities to play every day in center field elsewhere. He’s headed into his age-33 season and coming off a disappointing .228/.281/.369 showing in 221 plate appearances before the hip surgery. Yet he’s also still one of the sport’s better defensive outfielders, and he’s arguably the second-best center fielder available in a weak free agent class. Excepting top free agent Aaron Judge, who’s better suited for right field long-term, only Brandon Nimmo looks like a slam-dunk regular to play center field next year. Nimmo’s likely to command a nine-figure contract of his own, and Kiermaier is alongside players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adam Duvall as the next tier of options. The Dodgers could non-tender Cody Bellinger, which would cut loose a plus defender coming off a couple seasons of offensive struggles, but the options aren’t robust for teams looking for outside help in center field.