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.
I don’t think he’s (Kiner-Falefa) been under appreciated this winter, at least. I’ve heard possible fits for him all over the place before the lockout.
IKF’s best asset is his flexibility, but he’s not a full time catcher and is more of an average player at best on the diamond and in the batter box. To me he’s way more of an organizational depth piece than a building block. I look at him as a younger Danny Santana from a few years back and we all saw how that panned out when he was flipped.
The AL West has definitely improved. How long before Trout becomes the James Harden of MLB and demands a trade.
I think Trout’s untradeable. He’s too good. No one has a deep enough farm to want to give up enough value to get him, especially since he’s 30 now.
I think Trout’s untradeable. He’s too good.
I think he’s untradeable because he is a team icon. But he’s not the player he was a few years ago. A lot of his supporting stats have declined, albeit from otherworldly.
Take away career highs in BABIP and HR/FB, and his OPS sinks quite a bit. His GB/FB ratio went south. DRS went south. BB/K went south. SBs went south.
But mostly, this is 5 straight seasons with injuries. 114 games over the past 5 years.
This brings me back to a question I raised when Pujols was signed: “what if Pujols .906 in his last season with the Cards was now the new baseline, and that he was going to decline 10 straight years?”.
I wouldn’t empty the farm for Trout.
Andrew McCutchen was a franchise icon in Pitt… Everyone has a number on them.
Agree his best asset is flexibility but catching was only because they wanted to get him at bats and place to play when their infield was filled. Without the guys that got older gone he got his chance. He is a 2 WAR player which is a solid regular on a mid tier team. He can also be your 7/8th best player on a very good team. Plays good defense, runs the bases and puts together good at bats. Teams needs those guys in their lineups. He’s far from an organizational depth piece like a Ryan Dorow. Really no comparison to Santana at all but agree he’s not a building block of an organization but he is a complementary piece.
Santana was non-tendered. He wasn’t traded
I don’t see him as a trade chip. I see him as the Rangers regular 3rd basemen, but maybe I’m wrong. If he was a gold glove at 3rd, wouldn’t the Rangers just put him there regularly? Seager at SS and Semien at 2nd?
Their top prospect is a 3B and he’s close to ready.
Ah that makes sense!
Reading is fundamental.
I’m not a Rangers fan or anything, but Josh Jung is on the verge, I believe.
My guess is that he does stay with Texas.
With the mention of the White Sox in the article, I wonder if a trade built around Gavin Sheets would be a good starting point. Team control for at least 5 more years, still in his pre-arb years, a power outfield corner bat or first baseman with upside. Seems like it could be a starting point, even for a thin Sox farm system.
The CHW have Leury Garcia to play 2B. How is IKF an improvement? Both have speed. Both play solid defence. Both have limited power. They will stay with the replacement level player they don’t have to grade for.
Lacking the right offer, keep him. That kind of versatility, absent Max Muncy, is very hard to find. Rangers should have little trouble finding a taker at the deadline if necessary.
Given Seager’s injury history and a potential unproven rookie at 3B, it might be wise to keep him around.
If they’re trying to win now, seems like it would be best to keep him.
Kiner-Falefa’s flexibility makes him a fit with several teams. He fits at SS with the Yankees, Astros, Rockies & Angels. He fits with the Blue Jays, Phillies & Mariners at 3rd. He fits with the White Sox & Guardians at 2nd.
I don’t see Seager staying at short. In fact, I’d try to preserve him by playing him at first base. Of course, Seager would not have signed with Texas if they didn’t promise to keep him at shortstop. We’ll see how they feel about that promise in 2 or 3 years…
Rangers/Phillies trade centered on IKF for catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe (plus another player)…
I think the Phillies will trade Marchan before they trade O’Hoppe, who has had impressive growth recently. If they do trade O’Hoppe, I think it will be for a more impactful player or pitcher.
The Rangers are going to need IKF. Expecting Seager to play 120+ games at SS may be unrealistic. He was signed for his bat so i don’t see them having a problem with having him DH a bit
What teams need stellar infield defense? The AL team that needs it most is the Twins. Polanco is crummy SS defensively and is much better suited for 2B. They had Simmons for ’21 for this reason. ’22 is different. They have some prospects but they aren’t ready. Kiner-Falefa is someone to fill that hole. What compensation would be needed? Not sure, but it shouldn’t be ridiculous if there is interest on both sides. I know the Rangers probably need more pitching, so I think starting there wouldn’t be hard.
Every team that wins a championship has a player like him. And yes, they tend to under appreciated. That’s the fancy league mindset of needing a superstar at every position.
The Rangers might be better off holding on to Kiner-Falefa. His main skill is vesatility and playing decent defense, but teams will only pay so much for that without thump in the bat. He had an 85 OPS+ (81 for his career) last season. With only two years of control left, I don’t see a significant package returning for him, so maybe the Rangers decide to keep him as their super utility guy.
I don’t think he’s underappreciated. If anything, he might slightly overvalued as everyone keeps saying he’s underappreciated!
“ . If anything, he might slightly overvalued”
Agreed Rob. I think what started as a relatively unknown super utility guy turned into an over valued player because of his defense at a premium position and ability to play PT at another (C). Love to have him as a super utility though, but not for what the Rangers will ask.
I just look at Kiner-Falefa as a really good defensive player that can come in for defense in the later innings of a game. (Utility player) Nothing more or nothing less. A team would be stupid to give a top prospect for him. A mid level prospect would be to much for him also.
So you barely understand baseball…
@Nagger- ok gotcha. If you want this over-valued utility player than keep him. Pass. Keep dreaming of the top prospects you’re not getting for Kiner-Falefa. Smh
I agree he’s overrated. Since when is 316 a respectable OBP? With his defense he’s not terrible, that’s as far as I’d go.
He may be a luxury item for Texas, but, realistically, how much should another team pay for his services? He’s not dirt-cheap anymore, his batting skills are really old fashioned. but without the walks. Texas batted him first or second most of the time, which wouldn’t make lot of sense for a contending team. Not saying he isn’t useful, he is. But not really worth a very high price.
looks like another andrelton Simmons . Highly defensive rated low at bat.
He hits much better than simmons
Strong argument that prime Simmons was one of the greatest defensive SS’s ever, certainly of the last couple decades. IKF is nowhere near that level. Also, Simmons career OPS+ is 88 compared to IKF’s 81. Simmons had several seasons over 100 OPS+. So, I guess the argument is IKF is a poor-man’s Simmons. That all aside, I’d rather have IKF in 2022 since Simmons has become more injury prone and seems to be on the downside. He remains a good fielder, but no longer elite.
Nowhere near the defensive player Simmons was in his prime though
all in the suit that you wear
I think RobM and mike156 nailed it.
No GM wants an under appreciated trade chip. Teams want an over appreciated one
The Reds seem like a fit. They have no SS and didn’t last year. They tried the Suarez Farmer experiment that didn’t work. They still are waiting for the guy that changed his name to pan out in AAA. whats his name? Rangers need pitching. That’s what we have. Moustakas he s done. Suarez was at the mendoza line. Trade Gray and salary dump Moose or Suarez for Isaiah and some prospects. The Reds won’t compete this year ownership is dumping.
No team is taking on Moose. Suarez maybe.
Farmer actually handled SS decently and will likely be out there again. With the DH coming to the NL the Reds will likely cycle Votto/Suarez/Moustakas as DH’s. At best if Moustakas stays healthy and hits he could build enough value to be traded in july.
If jung is only considered an avg to slightly above avg defender at 3rd, then why not leave ikf at 3rd and move Jung to 1st where Nate Lowe is our best option?
I would love for Yankees to trade for IKF but I’m not giving Texas top prospects. Rangers need a first baseman so send Voit and a prospect like Devi Garcia with another prospect. I wouldn’t do much more than that for what really is a utility light hitting infielder.
@billysbballz ~ I got no horse in this race… but I was wondering… is Nate Lowe Casper? He isn’t exactly a ghost and he has actually played 50+ more games since the beginning of 2020 than Voit. So to suggest that the rangers “need” a 1B type seems like a stretch to me. The most important “ability” in a sport like baseball which is a marathon is “availability” and even though Voit has played up better offensively in his limited time than Lowe, Lowe is not invisible and 13% better than league average is not NOTHING. So… the Rangers in a year where they probably won’t win the world series don’t need a 1B… especially one who played 89 games less in 2021 than the one you want to send to replace the incumbent… IJS… Lowe is not useless…
Agreed. Lowe needs another year of run. I believe, and I think The Rangers do too.
Not under appreciated by fans in the AL West. Like a lot of good players he flies under the radar of the east coast media and fans, but not those who seem him play.
IKF, Foscue, and Lowe for Olson
That’s fair and I think realistic. I think both sides could be satisfied.
Not enough for Olson, plus IKF’s two years would be off-putting to Oakland. Oakland wants two MLB Top 100 prospects for Olson. Not sure they’ll get it but that’s what they’ll try to hold out for. I still think a package of Peraza, Gil, Schmidt & Voit from NY would land Olson so long as NY agreed to take back Elvis Andrews in the deal. While he’s not been good recently, Andrews would fill the 1 year need NY has for a SS while Volpe rounds out his skills.
Lowe is a starting 1B and had a decent year. Foscue is our 4th ranked prospect and IKF is a GG infielder. You could throw in another lower ranked prospect but I think this could get it done.
Matt Olson is more likely to end up with the Braves or the Rangers than the Yankees. They have zero interest in Andrus, who can’t hit his own weight. It is more realistic that either Freeman, Rizzo, or DJ will be playing lst base in 2022 for the Yankees. Peraza will likely be playing shortstop by mid summer. And Gil or Schmidt could grab a spot in the rotation, especially if there is an injury to one of the starters.
Might be just me, but he doesn’t seem worth much but versatility.
Kiner-Falefa is a good player, but just a stopgap till your prospects are ready. Yes he is definitely versatile. You just can’t give up the whole farm for him. If I’m the Yankees I would offer Aaron Hicks for him. Not much more.
The Yankees would be foolish not to trade at least all of their top 10 prospects for IKF. The top 10 prospects plus $90 million cash money is the only fair deal for IKF.
MLBPA is a failure if they don’t reduce the amount of time these players are locked into playing on rookie deals. Much of baseball players are stuck in arbitration and minimal league salary.