Tropicana Field has a lot of ground to cover if you play behind the clay in the vastness that is the outfield. If your name isn’t Kevin Kiermaier and you don’t have two Gold Gloves to your name – there are some question marks heading into the 2017 season at the corner outfield positions.
LF: The biggest hole the Rays probably still have heading into spring training. The candidates range from Corey Dickerson, when he’s not DH-ing, Nick Franklin, who’s not a natural outfielder, Mikie Mahtook, who’s coming off a very sub-par and injury-shortened 2016, and newly signed Shane Peterson, who has an invite to spring training but isn’t on the 40-man roster – yet.
- Dickerson finished last season tying a career-high in home runs with 24. Despite his slow start with his new team after coming over from Colorado, he finished strong hitting .307 in September, and cutting back on his strikeouts. He also crushed 36 doubles and totaled 63 extra-base hits, a career-high. In 148 games last season, he manned left field in 76 of them and at times didn’t seem very comfortable.
- Franklin, a natural infield utility player, did see some time in left field last season along with a pretty impressive uptick at the plate. In 60 games, a career-high at the MLB level, he saw his offensive numbers sky-rocket to the tune of .270/.328/.443 with an OPS of .771 including six home runs and 26 RBI. The Rays will want to get his bat in the lineup however possible and Kevin Cash proved that putting him in left field 18 times in ’16 as well as seven games in right field.
- Mahtook had an incredible September back in 2015. The Rays were hoping he could find some of that magic carried over into 2016 but, no thanks to injuries, he took a big step back in his sophomore season in MLB. Mahtook may be the best option from a defensive perspective of this group. However his .195/.231/.292 line must improve.
- Peterson was signed back on December 23 as an ‘ol non-roster invitee to spring training. The 28-year old has had two stints in MLB with Oakland back in 2013 for a couple games and most recently with the Brewers in 2015 where he played in 93 games and hit .259. His most impressive numbers have been at the AAA level where he’s hit .347, .320, and .308 in the last three seasons respectively and played a pretty solid outfield, primarily as a left fielder.
CF: As if there’s any question, the two-time Gold Glove, dynamic highlight reel that is Kevin Kiermaier will once again man centerfield. The only real question here is if he can continue to improve at the plate where he saw some career-highs in 2016. KK set new marks in home runs (12), stolen bases (21), and on-base percentage (.331). If he can keep his offensive numbers trending upward this is a guy who could get MVP consideration if the Rays can get back into contention.
RF: This job belongs to Steven Souza Jr and if he can finally put together a full, healthy season – he could really break out in 2017. A career-high 17 home runs in 120 games last season was good to see despite his injuries but his strikeout total needs to clean up. In 430 at bats, Souza Jr struck out 159 times and walked just 31 times. Imagine for a minute what Souza could do with 140+ games. He’s yet to reach that ceiling and that should be pretty exciting for Rays fans.
There is some depth in the lower levels, however, it’s not quite as strong as other positions the Rays have to fall back on. Not on the 40-man roster but hoping to make a name in spring training are Dayron Varona, Johnny Field, and Jake Bauers. Pending none of them are packaged into a trade before players report to Port Charlotte next month, that’s most likely the depth you’re looking at to back up injuries in the outfield this year.
There is plenty of optimism despite the question marks in the Rays outfield in 2017. With Kiermaier poised to notch a third consecutive elite season in the field and a healthy Souza Jr, finding that solution in left field remains the biggest obstacle. One would hope they stay away from a platoon but if that’s what Cash feels helps them win more games and utilize the talent they have – we all know he won’t shy away from doing just that.