The city of Toronto got a Boxing Day gift from the Blue Jays, as center fielder Kevin Kiermaier has agreed to a one-year deal (which is pending a physical). The Equity Baseball client is reportedly guaranteed $10.5MM, while the deal contains additional incentives.
Kiermaier, 34 in April, was a 31st-round pick by the Rays in the 2010 draft and quickly proved to be one of the savvier late-round picks in recent memory. After making his big league debut in a one-game cup of coffee during the 2013 season, Kiermaier stepped into the club’s everyday center field role in early 2014 and remained in that role for nine seasons where he established himself as a generational defender while slashing a respectable .248/.308/.408 during his time with the Rays. He departed the club to join the Blue Jays on a one-year deal last offseason that went very well for both sides. The veteran posted a 104 wRC+ while playing in 129 games, just the third time in his career he eclipsed 120 games in a season.
As a superlative defender in center who bats left-handed and slashed a respectable .260/.321/.431 against right-handed pitching last year, Kiermaier still makes some sense for a Jays club that sports few left-handed bats and had a vacancy in the outfield. That being said, the club has been frequently tied to Cody Bellinger to this point in the offseason and, with a strong center field defender in Daulton Varsho still on the roster, had generally been expected to pursue a more offensively oriented addition to their lineup this winter. That makes the club’s reunion with Kiermaier something of a surprise.
With that said, Kiermaier is certainly a quality player in his own right; his decent offense and strong defense earned him the #31 spot on MLBTR’s annual Top 50 MLB free agents list, where we projected him for a two-year, $26MM deal. That projection ended up coming in high by a year and more than $15MM. If the Blue Jays evaluated Kiermaier similarly, they may have felt that reuniting with the veteran at a relative discount was valuable enough to outweigh concerns about the club’s overall offensive production in the outfield, which combined to post a 99 wRC+ last year good for just 20th in the majors. Only the Marlins received less production from their outfield unit than Toronto among playoff teams in 2023.
It must also be noted that the return of Kiermaier needn’t necessarily preclude the club from adding Bellinger or another impact bat to the outfield mix. Talented as Varsho is, the 27-year-old is coming off an abysmal season at the plate where he slashed just .220/.285/.389 in 158 games, and even his strongest season with Arizona saw him post a wRC+ of just 107. That sort of production falls short of the typical everyday left fielder, and it would certainly be defensible for the Blue Jays to move Varsho into a part-time role backing up veterans Kiermaier and George Springer if it meant the addition of an impact bat to the club’s lineup. If the club chooses to go that route, the addition of a bat-first player such as Jorge Soler to the outfield mix could still make plenty of sense.
When discussing Bellinger specifically, the 28-year-old’s experience at first base both in 2023 and throughout his career could also help the Blue Jays fit him into their positional mix if they choose to do so. It’s at least reasonable to imagine a scenario where the club adds Bellinger and utilizes him both in the outfield and also at first base, where he could spell Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and allow the club’s franchise first baseman to spend more time at DH. Roster Resource projects the Blue Jays for a payroll of $213MM in 2024 following the addition of Kiermaier, a figure that’s essentially identical to their $214MM payroll last season. With that being said, the club surely has room for further additions given their reported pursuits of pricey superstars such as Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto in free agency as well as Juan Soto via trade.
While that remaining space in the budget could certainly be used to further shore up the outfield, it’s possible the club would prefer to turn its attention toward the infield. The departures of Matt Chapman and Whit Merrifield in free agency leave the Blue Jays without established, surefire starters at either second or third base. While youngster Davis Schneider has shown promise and the likes of Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal provide depth at both positions, adding at least one infielder to the mix appears to be a likely top priority for the club going forward this offseason.
In the meantime, the Blue Jays have shored up an area of weakness on the roster by bringing back a four-time Gold Glover at a premium defensive position. Kiermaier’s quality work in 2023 played a major role in Toronto’s 3.8 fWAR in center field tying with Boston for the eight-most production in baseball at the position, and he should provide the club with similar production next season if he can remain healthy headed into his age-34 campaign.
Mark Feinsand of MLB.com first reported the Blue Jays and Kiermiaer were nearing agreement on a one-year deal in the $10MM range. Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reported that the sides had an agreement on a $10.5MM guarantee with incentives.
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