The Rangers’ decision to cannonball into the deep end of the free-agent pool this offseason has radically reshaped their infield mix and given them one of the top offensive double-play tandems in Major League Baseball. Corey Seager and Marcus Semien are slated to hold down the shortstop/second base pairing in Arlington for the next seven seasons.
One side effect of that seismic splash is that it leaves Isiah Kiner-Falefa without a clear-cut defensive home. A Gold Glove winner at third base in 2020, Kiner-Falefa played a strong shortstop in 2021 and had been squarely atop the depth chart there prior to the Seager/Semien stunner. That’s no longer the case, though not through any fault of his own. Kiner-Falefa has been an elite fielder by measure of Defensive Runs Saved and finished third among MLB shortstops in the Fielding Bible’s voting this past season. Metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average aren’t as bullish, but Kiner-Falefa is at worst regarded as a roughly average defender (and generally agreed upon as a good bit more than that).
Beyond his accolades with the glove, Kiner-Falefa is fairly a solid performer at the plate, albeit in more of an “old school” manner. He’s been 13 percent worse than the average hitter, by measure of both wRC+ and OPS+, over the past two seasons — but that’s primarily due to a lack of power. Kiner-Falefa has still posted a solid .273 batting average and a respectable .316 on-base percentage in that time. He’s only drawn a walk in 4.6% of his past 905 plate appearances, but he’s also only fanned in 13.5% of those trips to the plate.
There’s plenty of value derived from Kiner-Falefa’s ability on the basepaths as well. He went 20-for-25 in stolen-base attempts this past season and ranked in the 75th percentile of MLB players in terms of average sprint speed, per Statcast. On top of that, Kiner-Falefa has played in all but six of the Rangers’ games dating back to 2020. Only six big league players have appeared in more games than Kiner-Falefa over those two years.
He may not be a star, but Kiner-Falefa is a good defender and baserunner who rarely strikes out and, despite a lack of power, at least gives his club solid at-bats. That’s a valuable player, even if the overall skill set is a bit less typical now than it’d have been a generation ago. A simple course of action is to just shift Kiner-Falefa back to the hot corner, where he won that previously mentioned Gold Glove in 2020. That’d be a straightforward means of addressing the infield, were it not for the presence of fast-rising prospect Josh Jung.
The 24-year-old Jung was the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2019 and has done nothing but hit since he made his professional debut. The former Texas Tech star is widely considered to be among the 40 or so best prospects in all of Major League Baseball and is expected to make his debut in 2022. It’s even arguable that with a good Spring Training showing, Jung could merit an immediate look in the big leagues. He posted a dominant .326/.398/.592 slash between Double-A and Triple-A last year, after all, including a ridiculous .348/.436/.652 output with nine home runs and 14 doubles in 156 Triple-A plate appearances.
Jung has played exclusively at third base in the minors, although as The Athletic’s Keith Law noted in ranking Jung 32nd on his Top 100 prospect list, the Rangers did play him at a few different positions in 2020 at their alternate site. Still, Law calls Jung a solid-average third baseman, and scouting reports at Baseball America, FanGraphs and MLB.com have generally agreed that Jung should be able to handle the position from a defensive standpoint.
Even if the expectation is that Jung rises quickly to the big leagues — be it Opening Day, late April or mid-June — the Rangers don’t necessarily need to do anything with Kiner-Falefa. He’s projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn an affordable $4.9MM salary in 2022 and is controllable via arbitration through the 2023 season. Asking Kiner-Falefa to keep the hot corner warm for Jung before moving into a super-utility role is a perfectly sound and defensible course of action for a team that is striving for immediately improved on-field results. Kiner-Falefa has strong defensive ratings at each of shortstop, third base and second base — and while he struggled when trying to work as a catcher early in his career, he does at least have 586 MLB innings at the position. At the very least, he’s a better option there than most emergency catchers.
Still, that versatility and affordability also create another path for the Rangers to take: trade Kiner-Falefa to a team that has an immediate infield need. Even with Seager, Semien, Jon Gray and Kole Calhoun, the Rangers aren’t expected to compete in 2022. They’re likely looking at 2023 and beyond, when Jung, Jack Leiter, Cole Winn and other top prospects will be more seasoned at the MLB level. Trading Kiner-Falefa now for one more jolt of young talent does carry some long-term appeal, even if it perhaps costs Texas a few wins in the forthcoming season.
The Yankees, for instance, have already been linked to Kiner-Falefa. If they’re indeed reluctant to sign one of the remaining premier shortstops (i.e. Carlos Correa, Trevor Story) to a long-term contract as they instead await the arrival of ballyhooed prospect Anthony Volpe, then Kiner-Falefa would make sense as a quality stopgap who could hold the fort down for the entire 2022 season at the least.
New York is far from the only on-paper fit. The Twins don’t have a clear starter at shortstop at the moment, nor do the Angels. The Astros are still planning for how they’ll replace Correa if he ultimately signs elsewhere, and the Phillies could use a defensive upgrade over Didi Gregorius. Looking to other positions that Kiner-Falefa can handle, the White Sox could install him at second base. The Blue Jays could look for help at either third base or second base.
Suffice it to say, there’s a fairly wide swath of teams that could and quite likely will show interest in Kiner-Falefa when the lockout lifts. Will the Rangers actually make a move, though? That much depends on the strength of offers received.
Texas isn’t going to move Kiner-Falefa solely because of his modest arbitration salary and the fact that he could eventually be used in more of a utility role. If a team makes a strong offer, though, the newfound infield depth will surely prompt president of baseball ops Jon Daniels and GM Chris Young to consider the idea. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News has suggested a couple of times this month that a trade might be likelier late in Spring Training, once Texas has a better sense of where Jung is and once other clubs know what to make of their internal options around the infield.
However things play out, Kiner-Falefa is now a rather valuable luxury item in Texas: well-rounded enough to start at three different infield positions but still likely one step down the depth chart at each spot by season’s end in 2022. Kiner-Falefa has quietly become an underappreciated trade chip, but if the offers presented to Daniels & Co. aren’t sufficient, it never hurts to have an overqualified depth piece in the event of injuries to big-name veterans or a slow start from a top prospect.