Blue Jays: Kevin Kiermaier is the club's underrated X-factor in 2023
By Edward Eng
In December 2022, after the Toronto Blue Jays lost one of their starting outfielders in Teoscar Hernández to the Seattle Mariners in a trade that brought in Erik Swanson, the Jays took the chance and signed free agent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year, $9M contract. During his time with the Tampa Bay Rays, he made countless dazzling plays in the outfield, winning multiple Gold Gloves in the process.
Kiermaier is known to have a hard, all-out playing style, never giving up on plays and hustled and busted his way after every hit. Unfortunately, his style of play also led to some injury issues along the way. In particular, with a more serious hip surgery in the past year, the Rays eventually chose not to re-sign him after the 2022 season.
During the 2022 offseason, one of the main goals for the Jays was to aim for more balance both in the field, and in their starting lineup. This included shoring up their outfield defense, as well as acquiring some left-handed bats to balance their right-handed heavy lineup. Kiermaier fits the bill for both needs and was exactly what the Jays were looking for.
Many people believe that the key X-factors for the Jays this year include acquisitions such as Brandon Belt and Daulton Varsho, or the potential resurgence of José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi. But no one can have as much impact on the game on both sides of the field (offence and defense) as much as what Kiermaier can do, making him the surprise X-factor for the Jays.
At age 32 with some injury history, and signing just a one-year contract with the Jays, this is essentially a “show me” year for Kiermaier, as he looks to secure that one last multi-year contract for his career. Thus, he will no doubt play to his fullest to maximize his value and opportunities for the future.
Being a defensive specialist in center field, Kiermaier will provide defensive stability for the Jays and help command their outfield. For his career, he has averaged a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) close to 15, whereas the starting outfield of Hernández, George Springer, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. last year combined for a DRS of zero, so the defense definitely got a massive upgrade for the year. He has the ability to adapt quickly to any environment with his great defensive instincts and most likely will adapt the fastest to the new irregular wall dimensions at the Rogers Centre. In addition, he generally has great routes to any balls hit to him in the outfield and would make plays like this seem routine:
Let’s just say, if the Jays had Kiermaier in Game Two of the AL Wild Card series last fall, the outcome of the series against the Mariners might have been totally different.
With his speed, if Kiermaier has finally overcome his recent injuries, he can torment the base paths, especially with the new MLB rule change of having bigger bases in place. He has averaged double digits in stolen bases in his career, so he can help the Jays set the table to score many runs. Not only that, with his great base running instincts, he could also do things like this:
In addition, Kiermaier has some unexpected power as well, averaging double digit home runs with the Rays from 2014-2019, despite playing in the pitcher-friendly ballpark in Tropicana Field. Now that he is with the Jays, Rogers Centre is known to be one of the more hitter-friendly venues in all of baseball, per Baseball Savant, so he may be able to take advantage of that and finally unleash his power potential.
Most importantly, because of Kiermaier’s hard-nosed, undeniable effort when playing, his energy and veteran leadership could ultimately rub off onto his teammates, elevating their level of play and attitude, similar to the effect that Kyle Lowry had with the Raptors during their contending years. Leading by example is generally a great way to motivate players on a team to do well together and support each other.
Of note, early results in 2023 so far for Kiermaier have come back very encouraging, as he hit .375 with five doubles, two triples, and seven RBIs during Spring Training, and is currently hitting over .400 with a DRS of 1 (which projects to over 30 for an entire season based on his games played thus far if he keeps the pace) after four regular season games.