When Chris Carter, the National League's reigning home run leader, signed for just one year and $3 million earlier this off-season it got people talking. The conversation centered around how 15 years ago Carter's 41 homer 2016 would have netted him a long term deal. But baseball teams no longer value players whose only skill is hitting bombs. They want well rounded athletes who play great defense, take their walks, and run the bases well. Hence why little known Kevin Kiermaier, a career .258 hitter who has never hit more than 12 homers in a season, is signing a six year, $50 million plus extension with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The first time I remember hearing about baseball trending towards more of an athletic game was at the 2009 All Star game. Most of the big boppers from the steroid era were gone by then and it was the first mid summer classic in a while not to feature either Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez. The game was changing and since then we have seen teams such as the Rays, Royals, and Cubs have real success while emphasizing defense. While baseball's best players used to be considered sluggers like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire we now see more well rounded guys like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Kris Bryant considered as the best players in the game.
Anyways back to Kiermaier. Outside of Tampa Bay's three fans many people who follow baseball may not realize how good he is. It's true we value defense and base running more these days but Kiermaier takes this to a whole other level. A former 31st round pick he made the majors in 2014 before breaking out in 2015. That season he finished third amongst all American League Players with 7.3 WAR according to baseball-reference.
Yes you read that correctly. The only AL players to have more WAR than Kiermaier in 2015 were Trout and Josh Donaldson. What's crazy is most of Kiermaier's WAR came from defense where he registered 5.0, nearly twice as many as Kevin Pillar's second place finish of 2.8. Kiermaier also recorded 42 defensive runs saved (DRS) that year, which is the most ever in the history of the stat. His 2015 season ranks as one of the best all time defensively.
In 2016 he was also really good but played in just 105 games due to injury. Yet despite missing a third of the season Kiermaier won his second straight gold glove, led all center fielders in DRS, and led all of baseball in defensive WAR. Defensive stats can be tricky since they are technically quantifiable but to the average fan are tough to understand. However, all you need to know is Kiermaier rates so much better than everyone else that he must be pretty valuable on that side of the ball.
Carter wasn't the only slugger to get "underpaid" this winter. Mark Trumbo led all of baseball with 47 homers yet received just three years and $37 million from the Orioles. This is well below the value of Kiermaier's extension despite Trumbo having more leverage as a free agent. But honestly it's a good deal for both Tampa Bay and Kiermaier. For the Rays they get a potential long term discount for one of the game's premium assets right now, and for Kiermaier he's set for life and his main skill set may have deteriorated by the time he would have reached free agency. Outside of Evan Longoria it's the largest contract the Rays have ever given out.