The Blue Jays have an agreement in place with center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, according to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet. The deal is pending a physical. It’ll be just the second team Kiermaier has played for, having spent 10 big league seasons with the AL East rival Rays. He became a free agent for the first time after the Rays declined his $13M team option for 2023.
The 32-year-old appeared in 63 games for the Rays last season, slashing .228/.281/.369 with seven home runs over 221 plate appearances. He’s always been known for his stellar defense in center field, and while that’s declined a bit in recent seasons, he was still worth two defensive runs saved there in 2022. The offensive production amounted to a below-average wRC+ of 90, but his defensive work meant he was still worth 1.1 fWAR.
Injuries played a big part in Kiermaier’s 2022 season, as he landed on the IL in June with left hip inflammation. He was activated July 1, but by July 10, he was back on the IL with the same problem, which ultimately ended his season early. He ended up having surgery in August to address the labrum issue in the left hip, but the expectation at the time was that he’d be ready for spring training.
Kiermaier is a three-time Gold Glove winner who’s been one of the best center fielders in all of baseball for the past decade. Since his first full year in 2014, Kiermaier has been worth 147 defensive runs saved, according to Fielding Bible. That’s the best of all outfielders and second overall behind Andrelton Simmons (who had 1,400 more defensive innings).
Despite 2022 being the worst defensive year of his career, it was still above-average, and there’s every chance his hip problem played a significant part in that. After all, just a year ago he was worth 13 DRS in 894 2/3 center field innings. He still ranked in the 93rd percentile in sprint speed and ranked well above league average in arm strength.
Offense has never been Kiermaier’s calling, and he owns a lifetime .248/.308/.407 line. That’s largely built off his early work, and since 2018 he’s put up a wRC+ of 79, 79, 94, 101 and then 90. There’s not a lot of power there (82 career home runs), and his strikeout rate has gradually ticked up to 27.6% in 2022 against a walk rate of 6.3%.
George Springer has been handling the bulk of the work in center field in recent seasons, but there’s been speculation that he’d move to a corner spot moving forward. The trade of Teoscar Hernandez to the Mariners and this signing of Kiermaier seems to confirm that, and it looks likely the Jays will line up with Springer and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the corner spots with Kiermaier manning center.
This move may not be the last outfield addition either, and the team could look to add a fourth offensively minded outfielder at some stage. Ben Nicholson-Smith of SportsNet reports that the team has interest in both Michael Conforto and Michael Brantley. Signing either of those two would give the Jays a more flexible outfield group, and allow them to rotate options through the DH position as well depending on matchups, form and workload.