By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Kevin Kiermaier never really thought playing baseball professionally was a realistic option until scouts came calling while playing for Parkland College.
His focus and mindset changed after that.
That focus paid off – literally – as he’s expected to sign a six-year, $53.5 million deal later this week, which was first reported by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times late Tuesday night.
“Ever since then is when I started setting expectations for myself,” Kiermaier said Wednesday morning. “It’s a very rewarding, humbling feeling for me. I’m very, very grateful for the Rays to do this for me.”
Nothing is official yet, but it appears as if there’s some guaranteed money in the deal for Kiermaier with an option as well. An official announcement with a press conference is expected either today or Friday.
The 26-year-old was supposed to make $2.975 million this year, but the new contract will reportedly take place this year. His new contract will have an average of around $9 million per year.
“Until I go sign that thing, I’m not going to get too in depth, but I feel very blessed and thankful to be rewarded for how I’ve handled myself ever since I really set baseball as a goal for myself,” he said.
Kiermaier hit .246 in 105 game last season, with 25 doubles, 12 triples, 10 homers and 40 RBI. His defensive abilities, which he’s committed just 13 errors in 365 career games, is a large contributing factor. He won his second consecutive golf glove last year as a centerfielder.
He was second among all players last year in defensive runs saved with 25. If you combine 2015 and 2016, he’s first with 67 runs saved. The next closest is Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons with 43.
“He’s a special player,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We say that all the time. I think he’s evolved over here – since I’ve been here – as one of the leaders in the clubhouse. He brings it every day (with) high energy.
“We all see what he does defensively. We all see what he’s capable of doing offensively when he’s getting on base. He adds elements to our lineup other people maybe can’t do with his athletic ability.”
Along with third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Chris Archer, Kiermaier is one of the biggest names on the team. Longoria was pleased to see the team make a financial commitment to winning.
“I think as an organization, we should all be happy,” Longoria said. “He’s a guy who’s obviously a huge part of our defense, what we want to be as a team as far as the way to play the game and the kind of person we want in this clubhouse to build the culture. It’s a good day for the organization to be able to lock a player up like him.”
Kiermaier was a 31st-round draft pick in 2010, and is just one of six players since gold gloves were introduced in 1957, to be drafted after the 30th round and win multiple gold gloves.
As expected, the Rays sent down about a dozen players to minor league camp following Wednesday’s game.
With minor league spring training games beginning today, those players not getting significant playing time will now have the opportunity to play more away from the big-league camp.
“You try to make it a good conversation and give some good messages, but guys are disappointed,” Manager Kevin Cash said. “For the most part, they all showed up really well and we’re excited to start getting them innings and at-bats. Those are going to be tougher to come by.”
Seven players on the 40-man roster were optioned, which expected names like: shortstop Willy Adames, and six right-handed pitchers in Jose De Leon, Taylor Guerrieri, Chih-Wei Hu, Ryne Stanek and Hunter Wood.
Those who were not on the 40-man roster who were reassigned to minor league camp include: right-hander Jeff Ames, infielder Ryan Brett, catcher Nick Ciuffo, catcher Jonah Heim, first baseman Dalton Kelly and left-hander Ryan Yarbrough.
One surprising move was the out-right release of veteran left-hander Dana Eveland.
“That was obviously the most difficult conversation,” Cash said. “Dana is a guy who has been with us a lot last year, and then this year just couldn’t quite find a way for the roster fit to work. Wanted to do it sooner than later to give him an opportunity if he can find somewhere else.”
Another note from that list, De Leon has left camp to join Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. It’s not known yet when he will pitch for them.
Coming into spring, one unknown surrounding the Rays was how well Brad Miller would adjust to the move to second base.
So far, it’s gone better than most could have expected.
“Everything has been a huge bright spot for us,” manager Kevin Cash said. “There was probably a little bit of a question mark, and he’s kind of justifying that he’s more than capable of going over there. If you stick 30 home runs at second base, you’re probably talking about an all-star second baseman.”
Last season Miller moved from shortstop to first base toward the end of a 30-home run season. He played 105 games at short, with 39 at first. That home run total gave him the most all-time by a left-handed-hitting shortstop (minimum half of games at shortstop) in Major League Baseball history.
He entered Wednesday with 45 innings at second base so far this spring, and has looked strong, committing just one error.
Relief pitcher Brad Boxberger continues to work his way back from a lat / back injury which has sidelined him for the entirety of spring training so far.
Boxberger threw a couple of bullpen sessions this week and says he feels good from them. He could find his way into a minor-league game later this week.
There’s no timetable yet for him getting into a game with the Rays, but it looks like it could be soon. Being ready for opening day is still an option for the reliever, who had 41 saves in 2015.
The few baseball-loving Americans who didn’t know Chris Archer before last week certainly know his name now after his outstanding performance in the World Baseball Classic.
Archer returned to Port Charlotte earlier this week, and spoke with media members on Wednesday.
“It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Archer said. “Hopefully we can have a similar approach and atmosphere this year. Just having fun and playing meaningful games.”
Archer and the Rays agreed to him throwing just four innings in his outing against Colombia, but it became enticing to go back out for a fifth when he sat at just 41 pitches after four. Instead of a fifth inning, Archer had to settle for four perfect innings, helping Team USA to a victory.
“I just wanted to keep my word to the organization,” Archer said. “Going into it, we said this was how it’s going to be, and Cash didn’t want me to deviate from it because he had my health and the organization’s best interests (in mind). So yeah, I’m happy with how everything played out.”
Archer – along with fellow starter Alex Cobb – will pitch today in a minor league game on the Rays’ off day. This means he’s won’t pitch for Team USA in the second round of the WBC, but he’s itching to get back out there for the championship round.
He says he’s rooting extra hard for his USA teammates while they’re in San Diego: “As hard as I possibly can. I don’t want it to be over yet. It may be the only opportunity I have to do this, so I really want to make it out to LA bad. Bad.”
Matt Andriese had his best outing of the spring in the Rays’ tie against the Red Sox on Wednesday.
Andriese allowed just one run on five hits over 3.1 innings of work. He struck out three batters and didn’t allow a walk.
“It felt much better,” Andriese said. “(I felt) a lot more comfortable getting through the innings. Getting up four times was really good. It was just good to get out there three-plus innings after only one-plus the last two times out.”
In his previous outing last week against the Pirates, Andriese needed 44 pitches to record just five outs. This time around, he had a strong 60-pitch outing (with 40 strikes).
The Washington Nationals released catcher Derek Norris Wednesday morning.
Morris was slated to to make $4.2 million in 2017, which became too steep of a price for the Nationals to pay a backup catcher once they signed free agent Matt Wieters.
The 28-year-old could possibly see some interest from the Rays, as Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre have had decent springs, but haven’t done much to stand out.
Norris spent the previous two seasons with the San Diego Padres, where he totaled 272 games with 80 extra base hits, 119 RBI and a .222 batting average. Defensively, he committed just 16 errors behind the plate in that span.