Sounds Like the Cubs and Rays Could Reignite Kevin Kiermaier Trade Talks When the Lockout Ends

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Sounds Like the Cubs and Rays Could Reignite Kevin Kiermaier Trade Talks When the Lockout Ends

Chicago Cubs

Center field certainly doesn’t feel like a position of priority for the Cubs this offseason – in terms of the discussion it generates – but we’ve probably been a little too glib about their current options. Guys like Ian Happ or Rafael Ortega or Michael Hermosillo or platoon options — or the expected mid-season promotion of Brennen Davis — may feel like reasonable alternatives heading into Opening Day, but Happ is better suited for a corner, Ortega is probably better suited for a complementary role, Hermosillo is unproven at the big league level, and Davis is no lock to arrive before midseason (and no guarantee to contribute thereafter).

We can look around the rest of the 40-man roster and maybe point to some other theoretical options for center, but there’s no obvious everyday answer for Opening Day.

My point? If the Cubs really do want to give it a go in the first half, adding a sure-fire starter in center field wouldn’t hurt. And if it’s a glove-first guy, whose acquisition cost would be lower, and who could help with what figures to be a TON of balls in play, that wouldn’t be a terrible way to go.

Yes, I’m setting up the headline as a possibility. Bruce Levine has one idea of a player they can target, as he said on 670 The Score:

The Cubs need a shortstop and a center fielder, as well as some pitching, okay? …. They need a glove man in center. Tampa has Kevin Kiermaier, one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball available. He’s under contract for $12 million in 2022. He’s not a fit for Tampa any longer. They will do their best to trade him. They will do their best to eat some of that contract. That might be right up the alley for the Chicago Cubs in a short term deal for arguably one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.

Kiermaier is entering his age-32 season and has been in the best-defensive-center-fielder conversation pretty much every year since he debuted, nabbing three Gold Gloves over his eight qualified campaigns. And while his bat has always on the lighter side, he was an above-average hitter overall last year (101 wRC+), including a playable .254/.328/.407 (104 wRC+) slash line against righties. Kiermaier, a lefty bat, has traditional platoon splits for his career.

NOTE: The average center fielder in 2021: .243/.314/.405 (95 wRC+).

Kiermaier is also scheduled to make $12 million in 2022 with a $13 million club option ($2.5M buyout) in 2023. And the Rays, perennially looking to shed salary, are reportedly ready to move on — according to both Chicago’s Bruce Levine and also Marc Topkin out of Tampa Bay:

The Rays will be looking to add a right-handed hitter who preferably can play first base (and fill the only real open spot among position players), but that may not be a name player or even a full-time big-leaguer. A bigger deal still looms as they seek to sort out their outfield surplus, with Kevin Kiermaier or Austin Meadows (who could get a lot of time at designated hitter) most likely to go in a trade, or maybe Manuel Margot. They may move quickly, as they’d prefer to avoid trading a veteran player after camp is more fully underway, given the disruption.

If you remember back to the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline, you might recall that the Cubs and Rays actually discussed a trade that would’ve sent Kiermaier to Chicago as part of a broader deal that would’ve included Kris Bryant and a package of prospects from Tampa Bay. The concept was akin to a prospect-buying deal, but obviously the Cubs preferred what they could get elsewhere for Bryant, alone. The Cubs and Rays reportedly also discussed another deal that never happened, centered around Bryant, Craig Kimbrel, and Tyler Glasnow (before his surgery (whew)).

This is not the first time this idea has come up this offseason, either, so it seems plausible that talks took place a little before the lockout, too.

The point here being, the Cubs and Rays have had some trade talks over the last 8 months and that could set the foundation for a quick deal right after the lockout.

But what does a deal for Kiermaier look like today, all things considered? We know the Rays are looking to save money and that the Cubs have short-term dollars to spend. And it’s not like Kiermaier is a total blackhole, either. Especially if he can maintain a league-average(ish) bat, at least against right-handed pitching. But … ah. That’s where the other numbers come in.

Kiermaier may have produced just enough last season (.310 wOBA) to be a net-positive, but Statcast saw some troubling data under the hood: .283 xwOBA (bottom 6% in MLB) with a .320 xSLG (bottom 4%). And ZiPS sees him in 2022 falling back to closer to the guy he was from 2018-20, with a projection of just .233/.297/.374 (86 OPS+).

If that’s the level around which the Cubs expect Kiermaier to produce in 2022, then, yes: taking $14.5M of guarantees off the Rays hands should cost them some prospect capital. That’s not to say the Cubs would have to send nothing in return. But from the sound of Topkin’s report, the Rays would settle for a borderline big-league first baseman, which is the LEVEL of price the Cubs should be willing and able to pay (with the Rays either including cash or prospects to balance things out; as for whom specifically the Cubs could send over, it gets a little trickier if you start talking about guys like Frank Schwindel or Patrick Wisdom, so we’ll leave that alone for the moment and just say the level is certainly something the Cubs could afford).

Ultimately, this is just yet another example of the sort of deal we’ve been pushing the Cubs toward all offseason. We want them to use their financial flexibility to get a player who COULD BE useful in the short-term while also grabbing some long-term value in the form of a prospect or two (which is the main focus of the trade!). If you can use the big league player, too, even if he’s on an “overpriced” contract, well that’s just a bonus. The point is using the flexibility to acquire prospect pieces. (Or, I suppose the Cubs could simply acquire Kiermaier for nothing at all, and then he’s just a high-AAV, short-term guy. But prospects would be nice.)

And in this case, there’s a clear history between these two teams on this exact player *and* recent reports out of both cities indicating the possibility. So keep an eye on this one, whenever the lockout ends.

(Brett, saying this again: Something something get Tyler Glasnow included, too, something something.)

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami