For five innings on Tuesday afternoon, the Rays didn’t really need outfielders. Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Nick Anderson and Hunter Strickland combined to record 15 outs in Tampa Bay’s 11-3 win over Boston at Charlotte Sports Park: five strikeouts, seven on the ground and three in the air caught by infielders. The only Red Sox hit during that time was an infield single.
So Kevin Kiermaier didn’t have a whole lot to do out in center field during his five-inning Spring Training debut.
“That’s a trend with our pitchers,” Kiermaier said afterward, smiling. “They don’t give me too much action.”
Whenever there is action in the outfield, though, another trend should reveal itself: The Rays have once again assembled a dynamic, versatile group capable of tracking down anything hit their way.
Last season, the Rays’ outfield ranked third in the Majors with seven outs above average, according to Statcast. They were fourth in 2019, 10th in ’18, second in ’17 and eighth in ’16. The common thread there is of course Kiermaier, Tampa Bay’s Platinum Glove Award winner whom manager Kevin Cash called a “special defender.”
The Rays gets plenty of well-deserved attention for their shifting, slick plays and solid fundamentals around the infield, but few clubs can match what Tampa Bay should be able to do in the outfield. No matter how you line them up, it’s a potentially special group defensively.
Manuel Margot is a natural center fielder who can play all three spots in the outfield, as he did last year during his first season with the Rays. Brett Phillips is another natural center fielder who can move around. Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows played center earlier in their careers, but they’re likely set in the corners now. Yoshi Tsutsugo will work in the infield at first and third base, but he’ll also spend time in left field.
“It's a beautiful thing having the athletes that I'm able to have next to me out in center field on each side,” Kiermaier said. “Whether it's Manny, Brett Phillips, Yoshi, Meadows, Randy, we’ve got some guys who can do some great things out there -- and we all feed off each other.”
The addition of Margot last season gave Cash a ton of flexibility in his lineup-making and in-game maneuvering, essentially another high-end center fielder capable of playing anywhere. Kiermaier ranks third among all outfielders in outs above average since 2016, with his 62 OAA checking in behind only Ender Inciarte and Lorenzo Cain, with Margot just down the list at No. 8 with 46 OAA.
Phillips hasn’t accrued the playing time necessary to rank among that group, but he’s been just as effective when he’s gotten the chance to play. He has totaled 10 OAA in only 134 career games in the outfield, including 93 starts, and that doesn’t even account for his game-changing arm that’s produced seven tracked throws of at least 100 mph.
Looking at the 176 outfielders with at least 250 attempts since 2016, Kiermaier, Margot and Phillips are three of only 20 players with at least a plus-4 percent “success rate added,” which is the difference between the percentage of plays they made compared to the percentage an average outfielder would have made with the same opportunities. If all three are on the roster and healthy, they could share the same outfield in high-leverage spots or behind fly ball-heavy pitchers.
“With KK, Phillips, Margot, we've got those guys as really good defensively. Great first-step, jump-off-the-bat reads,” Cash said. “Yes, the infield does get a lot of credit for the work they put in, but the outfield is right there in line.”
It’s also a pretty entertaining group, Kiermaier said Tuesday after spending five innings playing between noted dance-off rivals Arozarena and Phillips.
“They keep me young. They keep me on my toes. But it goes without saying that they're great athletes and they're fun to play next to,” Kiermaier said. “Great group of guys. Different characteristics, different personalities and it's fun playing next to ‘em. We have a great group and we're looking forward to getting this thing going.
“So hopefully we keep making solid ground as spring goes on and work on the communication and certain things like that where, come Opening Day, it's one of those things where I don't even feel like I need to say anything to the guys next to me. We're always on the same page with a few hand signals and little things like that go a long way and they help out through the course of the season. So we'll keep getting our work in and our individual defensive drills that we do before the games, and once the games [start], go out there and it’s hopefully smooth sailing.”
On Sunday, the Rays’ starting outfield included Meadows in left, Margot in center and Arozarena in right. Last week, they sent out an outfield of Arozarena-Phillips-Margot against the Red Sox and Tsutsugo-Margot-Arozarena two days before that.
These are just Spring Training lineups, not the real deal, but they showcase the adaptability and defensive ability the Rays have in their outfield. They may not have had much to do on Tuesday, but when the Rays need them, they’ll be there.
“[Margot] having that versatility, Brett Phillips can play all three, Meadows and Randy both can play the corners, Yoshi mainly when he's out there is going to play in left -- it should always present to have a pretty good outfield that can really go get the ball,” Cash said.