For Kiermaier, the grass is greener in Toronto

Outfielder's love for Blue Jays outweighs concerns over artificial turf

February 17th, 2024

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- After an abrupt exit from last year’s postseason, thought he’d played his final game in center field for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Kiermaier, who debuted with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013, had spent his entire career with teams that play on artificial turf. At age 33, his body requested a change in surface. He had options, too. The Twins called and had steady dialogue with his representatives. The Dodgers -- and their famously pristine lawn -- made an early inquiry. The Cubs and Giants checked in.

So why was Kiermaier back at the Blue Jays’ state-of-the-art spring home on Saturday, after returning to Toronto on a one-year, $10.5 million deal?

“These guys,” he said, surveying his teammates in the clubhouse. “I never thought I’d play on turf again. I blame the players.”

Kiermaier laughed. He wasn’t blaming his teammates, of course. He was giving them the highest compliment. Kiermaier likely could prolong his career -- and expand his future earnings -- by diving into outfield gaps of natural grass. But he said the Blue Jays’ culture and his family’s comfort in Toronto were more important.

“When our season ended last year, I never completely closed the door [on returning to Toronto] even though turf was not a priority for me by any means,” Kiermaier said. “The whole time, I said, ‘There’s no way I could [find] a more talented team.’ We pitch. We play defense. We’ve got guys who hit.

“It’s too much fun. I love these guys in here. That’s what brought me back, honestly. And Toronto treated me like a king last year. As a player, you want to feel appreciated. … My wife was crying her eyes out when we left [after] last year. She didn’t want to leave. My kids loved it. They talk about the CN Tower all the time. They can’t wait to go back.”

Kiermaier exceeded expectations in 2023 after his previous season with Tampa Bay was cut short by left hip surgery. He started 111 games in center field for Toronto -- his highest total since ‘19 -- and won his fourth career Gold Glove Award.

Before last season began, Kiermaier set a goal of leading the American League in hits out of the No. 9 spot; he did so with 83.

The statistic that matters most to Kiermaier in 2024 is zero -- as in, the number of days he wants to spend on the injured list.

“The only time I went [on the IL] last year was I made a catch in Boston and gashed my elbow,” he said. “I had a couple other things where I wasn’t available for three or four days. The Blue Jays -- shoutout to them -- saw it through with me. I probably could’ve went on a couple different times, but they allowed me to [stay active].”

Kiermaier played in 129 games last season, including as a pinch runner and a defensive replacement. He hopes to have a similar workload this season, starting four times per week with additional appearances off the bench.

“I’m cool with that,” Kiermaier said. “I’m not Cal Ripken and the guys who can go out there and play 162. Even 150-plus, I don’t think that’s in the cards for me. If I played 140 games, I’d be happy with that. I was very happy with how they treated me last year. … I’m ready to go as much as I can, but I’m one of those guys -- playing on turf forever, the way I play -- I need my days [off]. I will gladly admit that.

“You have to get through the regular season. Once the playoffs come, I hope I did everything in my power to be penciled in every game there, no matter what.”

Kiermaier will have one asset in 2024 that he didn’t enjoy last season: a fully renovated Rogers Centre. While Blue Jays fans enjoy comfortable, all-new 100 level seating and premium clubs, Kiermaier and his teammates will benefit from improved infrastructure behind the scenes.

“We’re getting a whole new clubhouse with so many more recovery options and things to help, pre- and postgame,” he said. “I’m excited about it. I had this crazy issue with my feet last year called metatarsalgia. It was like I had bone bruises on the balls of my feet. It was awful. I’ve never had that before. I know how I want to attack this year, and I know the things I need to do to prepare my body, because I hit a bad point last year. If I can avoid that this year, and avoid the other things that can happen throughout the season, I should be just fine.”

Kiermaier has a career .715 OPS over 31 postseason games, nearly identical to his mark during the regular season (.718). He reached the 2020 World Series, where his Rays lost to the Dodgers in six games. Kiermaier is set to arrive at 10 years of Major League service in early June, a significant milestone in a player’s career. He doesn’t have a specific plan for how many more seasons he’d like to play.

“I try not to get too ahead of myself,” Kiermaier said. “I always say, ‘Christmas Kev can play three or four [more] years. July, August Kev? He’s different.’ I’m on a year-to-year thing right now -- and not because I’m signing one-year deals over and over. I’ve got to be realistic.”

Part of that realism is Kiermaier’s understanding of the all-out, sprinting, diving style that has characterized his entire career -- and it explains how a 31st-round Draft pick from Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., has played more than 1,000 games in the Major Leagues.

“I could not do it any other way,” he said. “I would be disappointed in myself. It’s what helped me play in the big leagues for 10 years. Settling for less, or not hustling stuff out, is not in my DNA. It’s probably not the smartest thing. Hitting ground balls to second base and busting as hard as I could all those years, [Evan] Longoria saying, ‘Dude, chill out.’ Being where I am now, I know why people said the things they did earlier in my career.

“Those little things, they add up … but I’m still moving good enough. I come in every year and want to be elite defensively. Speed, arm, I have to have those. It’s always, ‘What can I do offensively to maximize my potential?’ That’s what I work my hardest for every year. That’s the chase of baseball. That’s why I’m still here. Never content. Never satisfied. Always wanting more. That’s the great thing about being part of such a great clubhouse.”