The nightmarish 2018 season for the Tampa Bay Rays continues.
In a Sunday matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies, Kevin Kiermaier, one of the best center fielders in the game, sprained his thumb sliding into second base as he tried to leg out a hustle double. Post-game comments by manager Kevin Cash and Kiermaier, himself, showed the presumption that Kiermaier would miss extended time on the DL.
"I don't want to get too far ahead,' Cash said after the game, 'but he will be out. There's a chance he will miss a chunk."
Kiermaier, who was limited in 98 games in 2017, acknowledged the uphill battle ahead of him. His MRI today revealed a torn thumb ligament and he will miss eight to 12 weeks following surgery. But for a team that is expected to be historically bad—their .200 winning percentage is the second lowest in the majors—they face a tough question.
Is Kiermaier the player worth building a team around?
Is he a franchise player?
The Rays had a franchise player in Evan Longoria, which is why it was surprising when they traded him to the San Francisco Giants.
Now, the Rays are amid a rebuild while simultaneously looking for the next player to assume Longoria's mantle. The natural selection would be Kiermaier, who has patrolled beneath the center field catwalks of Tropicana Field since 2014. In his six years in Tampa, he has established himself as a premier center fielder by claiming two Gold Gloves. In 2015 he took home the Platinum Glove, awarded to the best defensive player in all of baseball, after posting 5.0 wins above replacement (WAR) and accounting for 43 defensive runs saved.
His defensive abilities often overshadow his production at the plate, but his career .260 average shows a player who knows how to spray the ball all over the field. His 77 career doubles and 47 home runs are the numbers of a guy with a line drive swing who can exploit the power alleys in left and right, and his 61 career stolen bases show he can navigate the bases easily enough.
A franchise player doesn't have to have eye-popping numbers to earn that tag. Instead, he has to be someone who emerges as a leader on and off the field, molded by his ability to give consistent production on both sides of the baseball.
Consider this: Kiermaier has played 475 games in six years. That's 42% of the 1,134 total games he could've played in that span. He'll miss considerable time following his thumb surgery, and this follows missing 64 games due to a hairline fracture in his hip last year. Also, in 2016, he played in just 105 games after fracturing two bones in his hand.
The Rays took a chance on Kiermaier when they signed him to a six-year, $53.3m extension before the 2017 season. Given Kiermaier's potential—when healthy— one can see why they invested long-term in him as they expected Kiermaier to be a cornerstone of their next contending team.
And there's still plenty of time for him to be that franchise player the Rays are seeking, but Kiermaier needs to find the durability that has eluded him throughout his career. He plays with a fearlessness that has attributed to him being the best defensive center fielder in the game, but was it necessary for him to push for a hustle double in the bottom of the first in what has already been considered a lost season?
There's no question Kiermaier's value is at its highest when he's performing on the field. But if he continues to endure lengthened stints on the DL, the Rays will have an albatross of a contract hanging around their necks. If he proves he can't stay on the field, will the Rays be able to move him even if his reward is not as high as the risk factor?
You can't help but respect the player that gives 100%. But at 27 years old, how much longer can Kiermaier's fragile body handle that effort? The Rays' sights are set on the future, and Kevin Kiermaier has to show he's more than his injury risk to be a part of those plans.