In the 2019 MLB Draft, the Texas Rangers used the eighth overall selection on Josh Jung, a third baseman from Texas Tech. They immediately put him to work, as Jung played 44 games in the lower levels of the Rangers’ system that year as a 21-year-old. He played well and things looked promising, as Baseball America ranked him the #93 prospect in all of baseball heading into 2020.
Of course, 2020 brought the pandemic and all levels of the minor leagues were canceled, putting a dent in the plans of prospects all across the sport. As things were ramping back up for 2021 and they were all hoping to get back on track, Jung hit another setback. In March, he underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his foot, which was expected to lengthen his absence from organized baseball for another six to eight weeks.
Despite those setbacks, once Jung was finally healthy, he made up for lost time in a big way, finishing 2021 on an incredible tear. He finally made his season debut in Double-A on June 15th and played 43 games at that level, hitting .308/.366/.544, wRC+ of 140. He was promoted to Triple-A on August 20th and somehow hit even better. In 35 games for the Round Rock Express, his slash line was .348/.436/.652, wRC+ of 166. That strong finish to his campaign has launched him all the way up to #27 on Baseball America’s list.
At the big league level, the Rangers limped to the end of the 2021 season with a record of 60-102, with only the Orioles and Diamondbacks beneath them. As the offseason began, it seemed that the path was wide open for Jung to waltz onto the roster and make his MLB debut in 2022. Down the stretch, the Rangers gave most of the playing time at third base to a hodgepodge of utility players, such as Yonny Hernandez, Brock Holt, Charlie Culberson and Andy Ibanez.
Since then, however, the Rangers have smashed open their piggy banks and completely changed their infield picture. They shocked the baseball world by signing not one but two of the five superstar shortstops from this year’s star-studded crop of free agents, giving out a ten-year, $325MM contract to Corey Seager and a seven-year, $175MM deal to Marcus Semien. With Seager and Semien now firmly planted in the middle of the infield, that means that incumbent shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been bumped into the third base slot.
Since then, Kiner-Falefa has been floated as a possible trade candidate for those teams that prefer to not spend big on the star shortstops that are still available in free agency, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story. The Yankees, for instance, are apparently leaning towards a short-term option to plug into shortstop until one of their own prospects, Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza, take over the job. Kiner-Falefa is one option they’ve considered for such a task. But for now, he remains a Ranger, and can’t be moved until the lockout is concluded.
It’s widely expected that the lockout won’t be resolved any time soon, which will eventually lead to a situation where there is a quick turnaround from a new CBA being signed to the start of spring training, whether it’s on schedule or not. That will certainly lead to a wild flurry of transactions to be jammed into that window, as there are dozens of notable free agents still to be signed and many teams with trades to make. The Rangers could certainly try to trade Kiner-Falefa at that time, if they wish. However, they could also hang onto him and make use of his versatility to use him as a super utility option.
In 2021, Kiner-Falefa played 156 games, all at shortstop. But in previous seasons, he’s played third base, second base and catcher. His defense is a stronger calling card for him than his offense, as he’s yet to reach league average with his bat in any of his four seasons so far. In the shortened 2020 campaign, he hit .280/.329/.370 for a wRC+ of 94. In 2021, that slipped a bit to .271/.312/.357, wRC+ of 85. On the glove side, however, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating both give him favourable rankings. Statcast’s Outs Above Average doesn’t really like his shortstop work, pegging him at -7 this year, but it’s graded him well at third and second in previous years.
Although one could argue Jung has a decent chance of being the better option right now, there’s always the elephant of the room with top prospects, where one has to consider the possibility that the Rangers may keep Jung in the minors just long enough to gain an extra year of control. (Assuming the service time rules don’t drastically change in the next CBA.) The club could potentially go into spring training with Kiner-Falefa at the hot corner until Jung is “ready” to be promoted, but that’s also not a guarantee. The Padres recently gave an opening day promotion to Fernando Tatis Jr., showing that service time manipulation isn’t always a certainty. Regardless of the timing, once Jung is promoted, Kiner-Falefa would make for a nice option off the bench, jumping into the lineup whenever one of the other infielders need a day off.
Whether Kiner-Falefa is involved or not, it seems that the future squad will be Jung, Seager, Semien and Nathaniel Lowe, giving the Rangers the potential to have an elite infield core for years to come, as they look to flip the script after five straight losing seasons and get back into being a powerhouse in the AL West.