Rays Kiermaier wants to become impact player at plate

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) Kevin Kiermaier established himself as a game-changer defensively in his first full season in the major leagues. Now, the Tampa Bay Gold Glove winner wants to prove he can hit well enough to be an everyday player.

The speedy center fielder batted .263 with 10 homers and 40 RBI's, primarily facing right-handed pitching in 2015. He's confident he can hit left-handed pitching consistently, too, and hopes to make it a no-brainer for Rays manager Kevin Cash to keep him in the lineup, regardless of who's on the mound for opposing teams.

''I think I showed everyone that me being out there in center field gives us a great chance of winning. That's what it's all about,'' Kiermaier said. ''We want to win this year. The last two years we haven't got to the playoffs, and we want to reverse that trend this year and get back to that. We have the guys to do it here.''

The 25-year-old left-hand hitter started 131 of 151 games he appeared in last season and led all major league center fielders with 15 assists in becoming the first Tampa Bay outfielder to win a Gold Glove since Carl Crawford in 2010.

His 42 defensive runs saved led the major leagues, according to Fangraphs, and were 17 more than the No. 2 player, Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

But to reach his self-professed goal of starting at least 155 games this season, the native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, knows he's going to have to stay healthy and become more of an offensive force - especially against left-handed pitching. A 31st-round draft pick in 2010, Kiermaier hit .246 in 150 plate appearances against lefties last year, compared to .270 in 385 plate appearances against righties.

''I know I can hit. I have and I will. I think that's going to be the final thing for me, just to prove that I can consistently hit lefties,''he said Kiermaier. ''Even though I don't hit them for power, I know I can put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense.''

Cash noted Kiermaier made strides at the plate late last season and expects continued improvement.

''The way he finished off the last six, eight weeks of the year, if that's maintained over the full course of the year, he's going to continue to get better,'' Cash said.

''The old cliche is speed never slumps,'' the manager added. ''K.K., if he's working to his advantage offensively and doing the things he knows he needs to do, limits a lot of longer, prolonged slumps. Those types of players do that.''

Kiermaier was batting .244 when he jammed his right thumb, sliding into second base in early August. The injury forced adjustments that wound up benefiting him over the next two months.

By the end of the season, his average climbed to .263.

Kiermaier, who also batted .263 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 108 games two years ago, is eager to take up where he left off.

''I've matured a lot up there at the plate, and I'm very comfortable with my approach and my limitations up there,'' he said.

''I hurt my thumb. I had a less-is-more type of approach, and I had the best results of my pro career,'' the centerfielder added. ''I did that the last two months, and this year I am looking forward to using that six, seven, eight months. It's very exciting to think about.''

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