The Tampa Bay Rays were dealt some devastating injury news last week. Two-time Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier suffered a fractured hip sliding into first base during the Rays 7-5 win over the Chicago White Sox at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Kiermaier’s injury is expected to keep him off the field for around two months.
Rays Better Positioned To Deal With Kevin Kiermaier’s Injury This Year
Unfortunately, this is going to be the second straight season that Kiermaier spends significant time on the disabled list. Last year he suffered a fractured hand diving for a ball against the Detroit Tigers on May 21. Kiermaier didn’t return until July 15, the Rays first game after the All-Star break, missing 48 games with the injury. Tampa Bay went 14-34 in those games. When Kiermaier suffered his injury, the Rays were 20-19. When he returned, they were 34-54, their season already ruined.
The Rays missed Kiermaier’s game-changing defense and speed, but what really hurt was the lack of a suitable fill-in. Mikie Mahtook, Desmond Jennings and Brandon Guyer received the bulk of the playing time in center field during Kiermaier’s absence. None handled it particularly well.
We’ll start with the sad story of Jennings. The former top prospect was a pretty good Ray for a while, but by last year injuries had left him a shadow of his former self. Jennings played in 65 games for the Rays last year, and over 225 plate appearances slashed .200/.281/.350. He was a no longer a capable defender at this point either, grading out with an ugly UZR/150 of minus-31.3. Overall, he was worth negative-0.4 fWAR in 2016.
Mahtook somehow managed to be even more inept than Jennings offensively, slashing .195/.231/.292 in 196 plate appearances over 65 games. He was actually an adequate defender in center field, with a 10.5 UZR/150 and two defensive runs saved over 164 innings. Of course, he still wasn’t anything close to Kiermaier in the field, and his offense was such a black hole that he was worth negative-0.8 fWAR.
Finally there’s Guyer, who was by far the best of the replacements offensively. He slashed .241/.347/.406 in 249 plate appearances over 63 games for the Rays, mashing left-handed pitching and more than willing to take a baseball off the leg to get on base. Guyer struggled in center field, though, with a negative-13.3 UZR/150 and minus-three defensive runs saved in 136 innings. He was also very limited offensively against right-handed pitching, hitting just .218/.302/.329 against them compared to his .333/.461./553 line against southpaws. Overall he was worth just 0.3 fWAR before the Rays traded him to the Cleveland Indians on August 1. For reference, Kiermaier had a 24.2 UZR/150 and 25 defensive runs saved in 872.1 innings in center field in 2016.
The New Rays Center Fielder
Last year, the Rays lost their star center fielder for two months, and their replacements struggled to even perform at a replacement level. This season, it looks like Kiermaier will again miss around two months, but the Rays seem to have a much more capable fill-in this time. That would be Mallex Smith, who the Rays acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Drew Smyly trade in January.
Before suffering a hamstring injury, Smith started the season with the Rays due to Colby Rasmus beginning the year on the disabled list. He impressed in his short stint then, and he’s impressed since returning due to the Kiermaier injury. In 42 plate appearances this year, Smith is hitting .378/.452/.514 with a home run, and has seven stolen bases in just 13 games. He has as many walks (five) as strikeouts. Obviously that’s an incredibly small sample size, but Smith was also having a great year in Triple-A, hitting .311/.345/.477 with three home runs in 140 plate appearances. He also swiped 16 bags in just 30 games.
Smith doesn’t have Kiermaier’s arm or even his modest power at the plate. However, his speed will go a long way to filling Kiermaier’s hole when it comes to covering ground in the outfield and causing havoc on the basepaths. In 279.2 innings in center field for the Atlanta Braves last year, Smith had a UZR/150 of 3.6 and five defensive runs saved. In 62 innings in left field for the Rays this year, his UZR/150 is 33.6.
It’s also worth mentioning that this year’s Kiermaier may not be as hard to replace as last year’s. After a slow start, Kiermaier’s bat had picked up lately. His .258/.329/.408 line looks pretty normal, as last year he hit .246/.331/.410 and he’s hitting .258/.316/.422 for his career. He may not have had the offensive breakout some were predicting, but his real problem has been on defense. He’s been making far fewer spectacular plays and has even ended up on the blooper reel a few times for messing up routine ones. His UZR/150 is actually negative-9.9. Consider that in just 105 games last year, Kiermaier was worth 3.8 fWAR. In 62 games this year, despite having a very similar offensive season, he’s been worth just 1.0.
Of course, it’s not good news for the Rays that Kiermaier wasn’t having as good of a season. What is good news is that whether it’s offensively, defensively, or on the basepaths, Smith seems to be a much more capable replacement for him than anyone the Rays used last year was. Kiermaier’s injury last season wasn’t the only reason the Rays went off a cliff, but it was a big part of it. This time, between having a more capable replacement, and having less to replace, the Rays shouldn’t see nearly as significant of a drop.