On Sunday night’s broadcast on ESPN, Jessica Mendoza noted that, with the suspension of Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte and the season-ending injury to Washington’s Adam Eaton, the Red Sox have the best outfield in baseball with their group of young and exciting stars. Ordering the outfields behind Boston’s, however, is trickier. One can make a compelling case for the Angels or Nationals based on the presence of one elite player, but an outfield comprising three good players rather than one elite one is less risky, less susceptible to being decimated by potential injury. Miami would be a popular choice, and on offensive upside alone, they may be unmatched by any outfield in baseball (excepting Boston’s), but they lack a true center fielder in that group. An arguably better defensive group with almost as much offensive talent as the Marlins’ trio, however, can be found up the I-75 in St. Petersburg.
No team in MLB has a better defensive anchor in the outfield than do the Rays. Likely still underrated by the general public, Kevin Kiermaier averaged 27 Defensive Runs Saved per season from 2014-2016, easily the MLB leader among outfielders. While his glove alone makes him an above-average starter, Kiermaier also became an average hitter last season by nearly doubling his walk rate, enough to place himself in the conversation for the best non-Mike Trout center fielder in the league. While Kiermaier has struggled early on this season, with his ground-ball rate spiking by nearly 20 points, his plate discipline strides appear to be permanent, and it’s difficult to imagine that his power has completely evaporated at just 27 years of age. If Kiermaier’s bat does return to its previous levels, then the Rays would once again have one of the best two-way outfielders in the game patrolling centerfield. Even if he does not hit at his previous levels, his glove and baserunning makes him a safe bet to be a capable everyday player.
A return to form for Kiermaier is not enough, however, to elevate the Rays outfield into the elite tier; instead, a breakout season from one or both of the team’s corner outfielders is a necessity. Fortunately, Steven Souza is showing signs that he may be that breakout performer to complement Kiermaier in a top-flight outfield. Souza has always had a rare combination of power and speed, giving him the potential to be an impact two-way performer. Baseball America
ranked Souza as the #37 overall prospect prior to the 2015 season based on those tools, shortly after the Rays traded away one-time top prospect Wil Myers in order to acquire him (and prospect Jake Bauers). That athleticism has borne itself out at the major-league level, with Souza hitting a combined 33 home runs in part-time action from 2015-2016, while rating as an above-average baserunner
and, according to Statcast’s catch probability data, as an above-average defender
. Souza has been held back, it seems, by a very poor strikeout to walk profile. In the early going this season, however, Souza’s feel for the strike zone appears to have improved dramatically. He’s cut his chase rate (the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone at which a hitter swings) by nearly 6 percentage points while increasing his contact percentage by the same amount. This improved approach has enabled him to nearly double his walk rate in the early going, significantly cut his strikeout rate to more tenable levels, and better tap into his power, as he’s jumped out to a .296/.377/.481 line. While he still has his struggles with contact and will likely see his batting average fall in the coming months, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be an All-Star caliber player with his power and defense. A line of .270/.335/.475 seems possible for the improved version of Souza, which would make him a fantastic secondary piece in the Rays’ outfield.
Ironically, the third-best player in Tampa’s outfield has actually been the team’s best hitter in the early going. To this point, Corey Dickerson is slashing .330/.381/.608
, good for a 177 wRC+ that puts him in the top 15
qualified hitters this season. Dickerson’s profile doesn’t reveal any substantive changes from recent seasons (he’s managed to cut his strikeout rate by 5 percentage points, but has seemingly maintained his free-swinging approach). That said, Dickerson certainly has power, recording an Isolated Power of .224 with 24 home runs in 2016, his first season without the aid of Coors Field, and raising that figure in the early going in 2017. While he lacks the upside of either Kiermaier or Souza, both because of his plate discipline and his shaky defensive profile, Dickerson profiles as an above-average hitter with arguably the most power on the team, and his fantastic start has him on pace for a career season, even factoring in the regression in performance that will come. Also available for Kevin Cash are Colby Rasmus and Peter Bourjos, each of whom are serviceable reserve pieces. Rasmus struggled through vertigo last season in Houston, but returned presumably healthy on May 2 and brings a similar profile to Souza, albeit with slightly less upside in all facets of his game. Bourjos, meanwhile, has a strong reputation as a defender and as a baserunner, making him ideally suited for the fifth-outfielder role in which he finds himself in Tampa Bay.
While perhaps lacking in name value and, to some extent, in consistent production in the past, the Rays’ outfield now looks like a plus, thanks to a combination of offensive and defensive upside matched by few outfields in baseball, adequate depth, and stellar early-season production. Should Kevin Kiermaier reaffirm his status as one of the best all-around players in the game and Steven Souza emerge as an All-Star caliber player, neither of which seems particularly outlandish at this point, Tampa Bay’s outfield should quickly find itself in that conversation with the best groups in the game.