Rays have high hopes for Kiermaier
Only 23, outfield prospect draws high praise about defensive abilities
ST. PETERSBURG -- Every baseball fan begins to dream about Spring Training once the calendar peels to a new year. Always contained within that dream is the hope that a phenom will appear.
Rest comfortably, Rays fans. Kevin Kiermaier will fill that role this year when the team reports to Port Charlotte, Fla.
Most outfielders draw attention by the way they swing the bat. Kiermaier is an exception to that rule. While his hitting is coming along nicely, the native of Fort Wayne, Ind., takes the breath away from those who watch him play defense.
Kiermaier teased Rays fans when he joined the team for Game No. 163 against the Rangers and earned a spot on the playoff roster for the American League Wild Card Game against the Indians due to his defense. The tease came in the fact that even though Kiermaier played, he did not get any chances, nor did he get to hit.
Nevertheless, Tampa Bay believes Kiermaier can become a special player.
"In our opinion, Kevin Kiermaier might be the best defensive outfielder in our organization, at any level," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "He is fearless, gets tremendous jumps, runs well and has a great arm."
Former outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who now works in the front office, called Kiermaier a "well-above-average defender in center field."
"He's shown he's capable of playing all three outfield spots if needed," Baldelli said. "When he's in the middle of the field, he truly does change the game the way that he plays it."
When asked to elaborate, Baldelli said Kiermaier was "an above-average athlete" and a "plus runner" before noting that there are a lot guys who are plus runners and that being a plus runner isn't what makes him really good.
"He's got tremendous instincts," Baldelli said. "He gets tremendous jumps on the ball. He closes on the ball, no matter what direction he's headed. He closes on the ball about as well as anyone could close on balls. He makes up ground when a lot of other players become a little hesitant. He actually takes off, and visually he appears as if he's covering more ground at the end of the play than you're used to seeing.
"He's got an above-average arm, an above-average release. He plays aggressively. You would want all young players to watch the way he plays."
In mystical phenom fashion, Kiermaier seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The Rays selected him out of Parkland College (Champaign, Ill.) in the 31st round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and he opted to sign rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to play at Purdue. Simply stated, he wanted to become a professional baseball player and was ready to get started.
Michael Johns, Kiermaier's first manager at Rookie League Princeton, realized right away that Kiermaier wasn't your run-of-the-mill 31st-round pick.
"Just right out of the gate, what stood out with him was how he played the game," Johns said. "He plays really, really hard. He never takes days off. He just likes playing.
"He's a very even-keeled kid. He never gets too up or down. That's a cliche, but it's hard to do, even for a manager or a coach to do. But he has that knack for doing it. And he believes in himself."
Kiermaier attributed a part of his defensive prowess to his football days while playing free safety for Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High School.
"Free safety is kind of like the center field of defense playing football," Kiermaier said. "Even though the high school football in Indiana isn't the greatest competition, I felt like my senior year I took a big step forward when I had like 10 interceptions. And I always felt like I knew where it was going."
Like many center fielders, Kiermaier played shortstop through high school, even though he remembered playing a quality center field as a youngster. Once Kiermaier got to junior college, he moved to center field permanently.
"I always wanted to be a true five-tool player," Kiermaier said. "Ever since getting to pro ball, I knew that defense was something, especially with Tampa Bay, that they're very high on. And for me, I take a lot of pride in my defense. I know it's my No. 1 tool, and I have a lot of confidence in myself offensively. But when it comes to defense, my instincts and arm strength, I wouldn't take anybody else's talents over mine."
Kiermaier is fanatical about taking the necessary steps to keep his defense sharp.
"It's doing little things, like early work with my outfield coordinators, stuff like that," said Kiermaier, who noted that he tries to simulate any kind of game situation while shagging flies during batting practice. "I really like playing in when I'm shagging during BP, because then I can go back on balls, because anyone can come in on a fly ball and catch it. But when you start coming in on fly balls and you're able to make catches like that, that's when you start separating yourself."
In four Minor League seasons, Kiermaier has a .275 batting average with 12 home runs and 109 RBIs, and he's stolen 75 and scored 205 runs in 376 games. Not exactly eye-popping numbers, but the Rays believe his offense will continue to keep getting stronger.
Of note, Kiermaier hit .307 with five home runs and 28 RBIs in 97 games for Double-A Montgomery last season.
"I think the difference I've seen in the last couple of years is his ability to recognize pitches earlier," Johns said. "That's the biggest thing. Now he's starting to drive the ball. He's doing the things that will keep you in the Major Leagues a long time. He's one of those guys who is really fun to watch."
Kiermaier also played 39 games at Triple-A Durham in 2013, posting a .263 average with a home run and 13 RBIs in 39 games.
"His offense really came on this year as well, and if that continues, he can be an everyday player in the big leagues," Friedman said. "There are still some things Kevin needs to refine, but we're excited about his future."
Reaching the Major Leagues this past season has added motivation for Kiermaier's pursuit.
"It gave me a taste of what being in the Major Leagues is like," Kiermaier said. "And that's what you play for, to make it to the Major Leagues and have a nice career up there. And for me, I've already talked to some teammates and everybody asks me where I'm going to be at. I don't really know where I'm going to be [this] year, but I'm working my butt off to make them make a decision out of Spring Training.
"I know I'm only 23 years-old right now, but at the same time, I feel like I can really contribute at the next level. And whatever happens, happens. But I control my work ethic right now, and I'm just trying to outwork everyone, get my body into great baseball shape, so that come Spring Training, they know that I'm ready to play and ready to go."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.