Back in March 2017, the Rays signed Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year, $53.5MM contract extension with the intention of locking in the Gold Glover as a fixture in the Tampa Bay outfield. As that contract enters its final guaranteed year, the team’s plan came to fruition…sort of. Kiermaier’s bat never took the expected leap forward, as he has hit .243/.307/.399 with 43 homers over 1817 plate appearances since the start of the 2017 season, translating to below-average (93 wRC+, 94 OPS+) offensive production. He has also played in only 486 of a possible 708 games in that five-season stretch due to a multitude of injuries.
And yet despite the missed time and the lack of consistent hitting, Kiermaier has still been worth 10.3 fWAR over the last five seasons, in large part because he remains arguably the sport’s best defensive outfielder. As per Fangraphs’ value metrics, Kiermaier has been worth $82.5MM from 2017-21, more than twice as much as his real-world earnings over the same period.
So in that sense, the Kiermaier extension has worked out for the Rays, and his presence (or lack thereof, when on the injured list) certainly hasn’t kept the team from enjoying quite a bit of on-field success. But for a team with such a limited payroll as Tampa Bay, any player making an eight-figure salary who is providing anything less than superstar-level production might not be a fit in the Rays’ financial framework. Indeed, it can be argued that if Kiermaier had been healthier over the last five years, the Rays might well have traded him long ago, given how often Kiermaier’s name has been whispered in trade rumors.
Heading into 2022, however, teams interested in acquiring Kiermaier face a bit less of a risk since he is only guaranteed one season’s worth of money. The center fielder is set to earn $14.5MM in 2022 — $12MM in salary, and the $2.5MM buyout of a $13MM club option for 2023. If Kiermaier can stay healthy and productive, then, a team could even exercise that option and keep him around for another year, adding a bit of a potential bonus to trading for the 31-year-old (who turns 32 in April).
“Less risk” doesn’t translate to no risk, of course, given Kiermaier’s checkered injury history. Counting on him to be an everyday center fielder just doesn’t seem feasible both health-wise and perhaps based on Kiermaier’s numbers, such as his .663 career OPS against left-handed pitching. If a team has a fairly inexpensive, right-handed hitting center field option already in place as a platoon partner, however, this club could take the plunge on Kiermaier and just hope that anything beyond two-thirds of a season would be gravy.
It is also quite possible that a Kiermaier trade would involve more than just Kiermaier. The Rays could certainly package him together as part of a larger multi-player swap, or maybe just include a prospect along with Kiermaier in order to better entice another team to absorb that full $14.5MM salary.
From Tampa Bay’s perspective, Kiermaier’s center field role could be relatively easily filled by Manuel Margot, a strong defender in his own right. The Rays’ starting outfield would then project as Margot, Randy Arozarena, and Austin Meadows, with Brett Phillips and Jordan Luplow as bench depth, Brandon Lowe and Vidal Brujan both capable of playing in the outfield, and top prospect Josh Lowe knocking on the door. This abundance of outfield options makes Kiermaier all the more expendable.
This season’s free agent market is very short on true center fielders, as the class consists of Starling Marte and then a large group of players who can play center in a pinch, but are better suited for regular work in the corners or at other positions. With pickings this slim on the center field front, teams in need of help up in the middle are more apt to check in with the Rays about Kiermaier, particularly clubs who miss out on Marte, or weren’t keen on meeting his asking price in the first place.
Let’s first omit the teams who either aren’t planning to contend in 2022 (the Orioles, Pirates, Diamondbacks), teams who may be more focused on payroll cuts than contending (Athletics, Reds), or the teams who are already have pretty solid center field options, or at least options that are comparable to what Kiermaier can provide — the Angels, Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, Guardians, Padres, Royals, and Tigers. With these 13 clubs out of the way, let’s focus on how the remaining 16 teams break down as potential fits for a Kiermaier swap…
Teams Linked To Starling Marte
- Phillies: The club parted ways with Odubel Herrera, and various in-house options (Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, Mickey Moniak, Luke Williams) haven’t proven themselves capable of regular work at the big league level. While the front office has implied that they have some room to spend, acquiring Kiermaier would be a relatively inexpensive way of addressing a major center field need, while allowing the Phillies to make a bigger splurge at another position.
- Rangers: Texas is ready to spend this offseason, so Kiermaier’s salary wouldn’t be an issue for the Arlington club. His shorter-term contract also gives the Rangers more flexibility with their outfield for any future moves next winter, when Texas might be making more of a full-on push to contend. For what it’s worth, the Rays and Rangers have lined up on some notable trades in recent years.
- Marlins: Kiermaier wouldn’t provide the hitting boost Miami is looking for, but there is obvious benefit to adding an elite defender to the outfield. With Kiermaier providing extra coverage on the grass, the Marlins could be more open to adding a big hitter who is less-than-stellar with the glove (i.e. Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber) for a corner outfield slot.
- Mets: The Amazins have long been looking for a true everyday center fielder, and Kiermaier would provide a hugely-needed defensive boost in the outfield. One obstacle, however, could be that the Mets are already loaded with left-handed hitting outfield options.
- Giants: Kind of an imperfect match, as San Francisco might feel they already have its own version of Kiermaier in Steven Duggar. Signing Marte would be a more natural upgrade for the Giants’ center field needs, but Duggar is younger than Kiermaier, can provide maybe 80% of the same excellent glovework, and might have some untapped hitting upside.
- Astros: A little similar to the Giants’ situation, as the Astros might feel the combination of Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and Jose Siri can provide Kiermaier-esque production at a fraction of the price. However, Meyers will miss at least some time at the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, and Astros GM James Click knows Kiermaier well from Click’s time working in Tampa Bay’s front office.
- Yankees: Since Kiermaier and Aaron Hicks have equally spotty injury histories, New York might want a more stable option to replace or platoon with Hicks. The Rays could also balk at dealing Kiermaier to a division rival.
Other Teams With Outfield Needs
- Rockies: Kiermaier would look good in patrolling the vast Coors Field grass, and he would only help the run-prevention efforts of a Rockies team that was quietly one of the league’s better defensive clubs. Garrett Hampson could act as a right-handed hitting platoon partner with Kiermaier in center, though some of the Rockies’ other outfielders (Raimel Tapia, Sam Hilliard, Yonathan Daza) could be even more expendable in other trades.
- Nationals: Lane Thomas impressed after being acquired by the Cardinals, but since Thomas is a right-handed hitter, he could be paired with Kiermaier in center, or he could see time in left field. If Washington did use Thomas in a more everyday capacity in left, a Kiermaier/Victor Robles could also work for center.
- Mariners: Seattle technically already has an outfield surplus that will become even deeper once star prospect Julio Rodriguez makes his big league debut. What the M’s don’t really have, however, is a true center field option, since Jarred Kelenic looks more suited for corner outfield work and Kyle Lewis is returning from major knee surgery. Kiermaier would bring veteran experience and a great glove to the outfield, and the Mariners and Rays have a long history of swinging trades with each other.
- Cubs: While Chicago could have been slotted in the “not sure how hard they’ll be trying to contend” group, the Cubs did have trade talks with the Rays about Kiermaier this past summer, even if Kiermaier’s inclusion may have been more about salary offset than a direct interest. Still, Kiermaier would certainly fit as a regular center fielder, with Rafael Ortega then moving into something of a fourth outfield role. Ultimately, the Cubs hope to have top prospect Brennen Davis seeing regular time in center field before the season is over, so Kiermaier would be something of a short-term fix that the Cubs might not feel they need to make with Ortega already around.
- Braves: The World Series champions will have Ronald Acuna Jr. back at some point to join an outfield mix that includes Adam Duvall, Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, and Guillermo Heredia. There is also the lingering uncertainty surrounding Marcell Ozuna, who will likely face a suspension under the MLB/MLBPA domestic violence policy. Bringing Kiermaier to center field would help solidify the group, but as we saw last year, Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos is pretty adept at rebuilding an outfield on the fly, so he might want to see how his current options play out before deciding if upgrades are necessary.
More Creative Options
- Dodgers: Chris Taylor could leave in free agency and Cody Bellinger might not be a part of the Dodgers’ future, given his struggles over the last two regular seasons. Therefore, the center field position might be in need of some help, and Dodgers president of baseball ops Andrew Friedman was the Rays’ GM when Kiermaier was initially drafted and developed in Tampa.
- Red Sox: Speaking of former Rays executives now running other front offices, Chaim Bloom could see Kiermaier as a way of upgrading the shaky Red Sox defense. Enrique Hernandez’s excellent center field glovework was a bright spot within that defensive corps, but with Kiermaier on board, Hernandez would be freed up for his intended super-utility role, with second base perhaps becoming his new regular position. As noted earlier with the Yankees, trading Kiermaier within the division might not be Tampa’s preference.
- White Sox: Another position change would be in the offing here, as while Luis Robert has looked pretty good as a defensive center fielder, he could slide nicely into a right field role if Kiermaier was acquired. Robert could also return to center field when a lefty starter is on the mound, thus opening up playing time for Andrew Vaughn or Adam Engel.
- Twins: Acquiring Kiermaier might only be a possibility for Minnesota if Byron Buxton is traded….or, maybe the Twins and Rays could arrange a trade involving both Kiermaier and Buxton. Such a deal might not really fit for either team in center field specifically, so it would need to be a pretty interesting multi-player swap to make this scenario anything more than a longshot.