Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay's forever Ray, nears the end after outlasting bigger stars
Kiermaier has persevered through two front office regimes and several mini-rebuilds with the Rays, and is about to complete an unprecedented feat.
There will be no ceremony on Aug. 2, when Major League Baseball’s trade deadline passes and Kevin Kiermaier, in all likelihood, remains a Tampa Bay Ray. Come November, when Kiermaier’s six-year, $53 million contract expires, there will be no gold watch presentation, no formal recognition should the unlikeliest player complete an unprecedented feat:
Signing a long-term deal with the Rays and never having to summon the moving trucks.
Kiermaier has persevered through two front office regimes, several mini-rebuilds and the constant churn that the Rays feel is necessary to sustain their prosperity in a lower-revenue market, a churn that at its highest level takes on an almost numbing sequence of events.
Identify and draft or trade for high-end talents. Sign that talent to a team-friendly contract extension, with multiple option years at a controlled cost.
And then, once that player reaches the apex of marketability, trade them.
Not since 2005, when they were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford signed what became a six-year, $33.5 million deal has the club extended a player who eventually fulfilled that contract while calling Tropicana Field home, as Crawford did in 2010.
Not Evan Longoria, the ultimate face of the franchise who made three All-Star Games and signed long-term twice – in 2008 and 2012 – but was traded to San Francisco in 2016.
Not James Shields, the first of their many aces who recorded the franchise’s first playoff and World Series victories ever – but was packaged with fellow right-hander Wade Davis and dealt in 2012 to Kansas City, which craved the seven controllable years both pitchers provided.
And not Scott Kazmir or Matt Moore or Chris Archer or Blake Snell, the latter who loved being a Ray but whose $50 million contract – pricey for Tampa Bay, reasonable elsewhere – meant a ticket out of town just weeks after he started two World Series games.
That leaves Kiermaier, who has neared the finish by straddling a most delicate line: Good enough to provide value to the Rays, but not so great that other teams will overwhelm them with prospects to acquire him.
“I think about my career and there’s definitely been attempts to try to move me,” Kiermaier, 32, told USA TODAY Sports. “Let’s not act like I’m some golden child. Other teams didn’t necessarily want to take on my contract or whatever.
“But I’d like to think I did something right along the way, where they keep asking me to come back.”
And come back he has, with more than eight years of service spanning nearly a decade with the Rays, marked by elite defensive and baserunning ability, modern metrics quantifying his contributions even as he lacked the traditional marks of greatness that only fattened up his predecessors’ value.
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Kiermaier has no All-Star Game appearances; the extended players traded before him appeared in 10 Midsummer Classics for the Rays, with Davis adding three more nods in Kansas City.
Kiermaier has never batted better than .276, never hit more than 15 home runs nor reached base at better than a .338 clip; Longoria had four 30-homer seasons and an .823 OPS in 10 seasons with the Rays.
And while Kiermaier has won three Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove, only once, in 2015, has he earned mention on an AL MVP ballot; it is Snell and David Price who won Cy Young Awards before they were traded, and Longoria with a Rookie of the Year trophy.
What Kiermaier does have is a considerable reservoir of gratitude, for the only organization he’s known and the region he’s adopted as his own.
'Truly living the dream'
It is challenging to frame Kiermaier as elder statesman, with both his skill set and youthful appearance belying his longevity. Yet ask Kiermaier who he counted as mentors early in his career and the answer sounds like something from a long-ago era.
Longoria and Price, of course, but also Ben Zobrist and James Loney, Matt Joyce and David DeJesus, all who taught him how to be a big leaguer as he does the youth now surrounding him.
It was five or so years ago when Kiermaier noticed the extended hours Longoria spent in the trainers’ room before games and simply could not relate.
Now, he does.
“I think about all the treatment I have to get now before each and every game,” says Kiermaier. “It felt like that was all (Longoria) did. But it’s that old school mentality – come to the field and do whatever you have to do to get ready for that 7 o’clock game.
“So long as you go out and play hard, no one can say anything to you.”
That, too, is proving more challenging.
Monday night, with the 36-30 Rays fighting to hang in the thick of the AL standings with the presumed East champion New York Yankees in town, Kiermaier took one at-bat against ace Gerrit Cole and hopped awkwardly after a swinging third strike. He left the game with left hip inflammation, another malady to add to calf woes that slowed him earlier this year.
In the ninth inning of the 2-2 game, right fielder Manuel Margot slammed into the right field wall and suffered a potentially serious knee injury. After the Rays' 4-2 loss, which dropped them a half-game behind Boston into fourth place in the AL East, manager Kevin Cash told reporters Margot would be sidelined a significant period and Kiermaier, too, would likely head to the injured list.
With sluggers Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco and Mike Zunino and a handful of key pitchers preceding them on the IL, the Rays were already punchless at the plate and stretched thin on the mound, and their performance between now and August will frame how GM Erik Neander approaches the trade deadline.
If nothing else, Kiermaier’s health concerns may further ensure he stays in a most unlikely paradise.
A 31st-round pick out of an Indiana community college, Kiermaier says he’s a “big nature guy,” but never figured the waters surrounding Tampa would be his oasis.
But Kiermaier battled through the Rays’ minor-league system, debuted in Game No. 163 in 2013 and has racked up at least 3.4 WAR in five of seven full seasons, including 7.1 WAR in 2015, ranking fourth among AL position players.
Along the way, he fell for and subsequently married the former Marisa Moralobo, who grew up in Largo, about a half-hour from Tropicana Field. The couple are raising two sons, Karter and Krew, and now bow fishing and anything near the bay or ocean are Kiermaier's happy places.
He has reveled in the shared success of the Rays, Lightning and Buccaneers, and can’t quite believe he’s turning into Consummate Tampa Guy.
“It’s a place that, if you told me when I was 10 years old, ‘I promise you, 20 years from now the city of Tampa/St. Pete will mean more to you than anywhere,’” says Kiermaier, “I’d have said no, I’ll be in the Midwest forever.
“I’m truly living the dream. I’m on Cloud 9 every day I put on this jersey.”
Few have worn it for longer. And if not in August, Kiermaier’s time to move on may come soon, too.
The list of franchise stalwarts who left the club of their own volition is short. Crawford signed long-term, was not traded and then bolted to the Boston Red Sox for a $142 million deal that fit his skill set but soon became an albatross.
Outfielders Rocco Baldelli (2008) and B.J. Upton (2012) and pitcher Alex Cobb (2017) were franchise cornerstones who went year-to-year and departed organically, via free agency.
But that’s about it.
Whether signing long term or going year to year, hanging around meant you were soon shipping out, with the guys you were traded for soon targeted for trade, too. Price was traded in 2014, in part for Drew Smyly and Willy Adames, who themselves were dealt in 2017 and 2021, respectively. Pitcher Jake Odorizzi was acquired in the Shields deal but shipped out in 2018. Outfielder Austin Meadows arrived in July 2018 in a fleecing for Archer, was an All-Star by 2019 but dealt to Detroit in April.
Then, there is Kiermaier, who trails only Crawford and Longoria in all-time Rays service time.
Neander has put together a pennant-winning team and a 100-win squad, but he also excels at introducing elephants in the room. And while Kiermaier has no power to stop a trade – he has no no-trade clause and is about two years shy of 10 years of service time – the GM has kept his longest-tenured player in the loop.
Kiermaier says Neander’s approach is simple: Don’t ask questions to which you’d rather not know the answers.
“The way he says it – and I believe every word that comes out of his mouth – he says, ‘KK, I promise you, no other team will value you the way we do,’” says Kiermaier, who is earning $12 million in his final guaranteed season. “For me, being a league-average, streaky hitter, they love me through my struggles. They’ll see it through with me.
“We’ve made trades in years past where it’s just a salary dump – we need to get this salary off the books. Erik told me they would not do that with me, that we value you too much to just give you away. And to hear that from the head honcho’s mouth makes me proud of what I’ve done.”
Indeed, Kiermaier’s career adjusted OPS and weighted runs created plus (both 98) scream league-average hitter. He does have his moments, though, such as a pair of home runs and .368 average in the 2020 World Series, or the ability to roust his team one day after getting no-hit by slamming a Shohei Ohtani pitch into the bleachers, as he did earlier this year in Anaheim.
Either way, it all adds up.
“If you look at his WAR, he’s a big reason why this team has gone to the playoffs the last couple years,” says outfielder Brett Phillips. “It’s no surprise he’s stuck around – when you have a guy that helps you win, I don’t know why you’d get rid of him.”
Phillips is one of approximately 15 corner outfielders who have flanked Kiermaier in his career, a motley crew that includes old heads like Grady Sizemore or DeJesus, to a phalanx of almost-famous sluggers like Hunter Renfroe or Tommy Pham, players the Rays have acquired and managed to harvest the very best from.
Before trading them, of course.
Kiermaier has outlasted all of them, and now finds himself a relative short-timer. Franco, their franchise shortstop, is guaranteed $182 million through 2032 (although he has no no-trade protection), while Lowe’s $24 million guarantee also has option years through 2026.
The Rays hold a $13 million option for 2023 on Kiermaier, which they’ll likely decline. Perhaps they’ll find a reasonable short-term agreement somewhere between the club option and the $2.5 million buyout he'd be owed. Or maybe Kiermaier will find greener pastures, and a chance at better health away from Tropicana Field’s notoriously penal playing surface.
He says he will play until he’s physically not able. And he knows where he’d like that to be, even if, relative to his predecessors, he’s already playing with house money.
“The Rays is all I know,” says Kiermaier. “And I am so grateful for that.”