'Electric' Siri seizing Rays' CF job in style

Given assurance on starting role, outfielder focused on making consistent contact

March 14th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- During an offseason meeting at the Rays’ academy in the Dominican Republic, manager Kevin Cash sat down with and delivered a clear, simple message.

“You are our center fielder,” Cash said. “Go get ready to play.”

Siri became the Rays’ regular center fielder last season, coming over from the Astros as part of a three-team trade and taking over for the injured Kevin Kiermaier. But Cash wanted Siri to know he could go about Spring Training preparing for the season rather than worrying about winning a job.

“When you're fighting for a spot or battling for a spot, you have a lot going on in your mind. It's just too much going on, so you put pressure on yourself,” Siri said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “If I go out there today and don't do well, I know that I can be a little bit more calm for tomorrow.”

Cash has offered similar assurances in the past, most notably with Austin Meadows before his All-Star season in 2019, and the thought process behind making this guarantee before camp began was pretty straightforward. The Rays want Siri to become the best player he can be, because they believe the best version of Siri is a potentially special talent.

There is no doubting Siri’s athleticism, which Cash called “fun to watch,” or his defensive ability. The Rays set a high bar for who they can trust defensively in center field, and Siri has cleared it. That quickly became apparent to Siri’s predecessor last season.

“Great athlete. He can throw, he can run, do a lot of what I can do,” said Kiermaier, who started the last eight Opening Day games in center for the Rays. “He’s an electric type of player.”

Despite only playing 104 games last season, Siri ranked third among all qualified Major League outfielders with 15 Outs Above Average, according to Statcast. He also flashed one of the strongest outfield arms (95th percentile) and a 100th-percentile average sprint speed.

“I've always felt like I've had something special. I've always felt like I've had something unique,” Siri said via Navarro. “I could be out and make the plays on defense. It's something that I've just always thought was very special in my game.”

Now, he has an opportunity to prove what he can do with an everyday role in center field.

“You have to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. I feel like you've got to be able to showcase what you can do,” Siri said through Navarro. “I feel like I have five tools, but hopefully make it six here soon.”

The five tools are hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing. So, what’s this sixth tool Siri has in mind? He smiled and tapped one finger to his temple.

“I think it's the concentration at the plate or in the game,” he said via Navarro. “I think the concentration on the game and at-bat is what's more important.”

Knowing his role well in advance has allowed Siri to move through this spring with concentration and confidence. He can play freely, understanding he can learn from his mistakes rather than feeling like he’s being judged for them.

With that mindset, Siri said he is directing all his focus this spring toward one goal: making more contact to get on base.

Siri has plenty of raw power, too. He showed it by slugging 24 home runs as a 21-year-old in Single-A in 2017 and 16 homers over 94 games in Triple-A two years ago. It still shows up in his maximum exit velocity readings, including a 112 mph mark that ranked in the Majors’ 81st percentile last season.

Although he was better with the Rays (.241/.292/.367 slash line in 56 games) than the Astros (.178/.238/.304 in 48 games) last season, he knows he needs to cut down on his strikeouts to reach his offensive potential. He whiffed in 33.2 percent of his plate appearances last year and went down swinging five times during the Rays’ final game of the season in the American League Wild Card Series in Cleveland.

Siri showed improved plate discipline in the Rays’ 7-4 win over the Twins on Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field, working a walk (which led to a run on two groundouts and a passed ball) and then grounding out to third base in his second plate appearance.

“On base, on base, on base -- good at-bats, then contact,” Siri said in English. “We'll strike out -- we're not perfect -- but [the goal is] more contact.”