The Yankees were expected to be big players in last year’s free agent shortstop sweepstakes, for fairly logical reasons. First of all, they had given up on Gleyber Torres taking over the position, bumping him to second base. Secondly, there was a huge crop of exciting free agents, which included Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Baez and Marcus Semien. However, reports indicated that the Yanks liked their shortstop prospects and just wanted to find a placeholder for 2022.
To that end, they acquired Kiner-Falefa, a defensive specialist with a below-average bat and two years of arbitration control remaining. The idea went according to plan, to a degree. Kiner-Falefa posted 10 Defensive Runs Saved at short as the club vastly improved its overall defense, at least by that metric. Their 129 DRS was easily the best in baseball, as the Dodgers came second with 84. Outs Above Average and Ultimate Zone Rating were a bit less enthusiastic about the work of Kiner-Falefa and the team as a whole, but they still achieved their goal of being better at run prevention. Their 3.5 runs allowed per game was their lowest since 1981.
IKF’s bat was still below league average, as he hit .261/.314/.327 for a wRC+ of 85. That’s 15% below league average but roughly in line with his previous work. The Yanks surely would have loved for him to take a step forward but they probably didn’t expect him to suddenly become a middle-of-the-order slugger.
Nonetheless, there were some reasons to think that a non-tender or a trade would be possible. For one thing, those aforementioned prospects that IKF was a placeholder for, they got one year closer to taking over. Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe were considered the two prime candidates to be the shortstop of the future in the Bronx, but they still needed more time coming into 2022. Peraza had only played eight Triple-A games coming into the year, but he added another 99 this year and also got into 18 MLB games. Volpe finished 2021 at High-A but got into 110 Double-A games in 2022 and then was promoted to Triple-A for 22 more contests. Adding to the crowded dance floor, Oswaldo Cabrera cracked the majors and played well in 44 games. He bounced around and seems ticketed for a utility role, but that’s another shortstop option in the mix.
Kiner-Falefa also seemed to fall out of favor with the club in the postseason, as a few defensive miscues led to a decrease in playing time. He was also due for a raise on his $4.7MM salary, with MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projecting a bump to $6.5MM. Given those factors, it seemed within the realm of possibility that IKF could have been non-tendered or traded but he’ll instead stick around.
Keeping IKF also has its merits, even with all the kids seeming ready to take over at shortstop. The Yankee infield is broadly uncertain, though at least Anthony Rizzo is now re-signed and locked in at first base. Torres is still lined up to play second base, but his $9.8MM projected salary makes him a trade candidate. Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMahieu are question marks after the former had a disappointing season and the latter finished the year on the IL. Kiner-Falefa is capable of playing multiple positions and could be bounced around based on how all the other situations play out. But agreeing to a salary also does nothing to prevent the Yanks from working out a trade in the months to come.