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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Isiah Kiner-Falefa

The Yankees are going to have to get creative to fix the infield.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After sitting idly by and watching while the Texas Rangers doled out their second massive contract to an infielder in 24 hours — this time to Corey Seager, who checked basically every box the Yankees had entering this offseason — New York needs to get creative to fix its infield problems. The dismissals of depth pieces Tyler Wade and Andrew Velazquez have left the Yankees even more woefully thin on the infield, with an out-of-position Gio Urshela and defensive-butcher Gleyber Torres as the only players on the Major League roster semi-capable of playing shortstop. So, in short, it’s looking like the organization might have to look to the trade market to fill those holes.

On the other side of the eight-ball, Isiah Kiner-Falefa sat by on Sunday and Monday and watched his team sign both Seager and Marcus Semien to massive contracts, effectively making his status as a middle infielder on the Rangers somewhat redundant. As a defense-first player, Kiner-Falefa will likely now be reduced to a late-inning defensive replacement role. Might the Rangers decide to dangle his name in the trade market to see what they could get? Some industry insiders seem to think that’s a possibility:

While it still remains to be seen whether Kiner-Falefa will fully be on the Yankees’ radar or not, it’s worth exploring the value he would have on the market and his potential fit in the Bronx.

As Joel Sherman pointed out in his tweet, Kiner-Falefa is the definition of a glove-first player. Since debuting in 2018, he has primarily split his time between third base and shortstop. He won a Gold Glove at the hot corner in 2020, where he has posted a very good 16 DRS in 925 career innings, and he has posted an equally good 14 DRS in 1,498 frames at shortstop. It is worth noting, too, that shortstop was his primary position in 2021, and he posted a DRS of 10 there last season.

Outs Above Average, on the other hand, is not nearly as kind to Kiner-Falefa the shortstop. Despite posting positive career results at third and second, his OAA at shortstop in 2021 was a -7. Based on Statcast’s calculations, Kiner-Falefa is above average when fielding the position laterally, but struggles when it comes to charging the ball.

On the offensive side of the ball, Kiner-Falefa doesn’t really bring much to the plate, as evidenced by his Statcast percentile rankings:

I know it’s not pretty, but I suppose it’s worth pointing out that Kiner-Falefa’s whiff and strikeout percentages are both in the 95th percentile across the league. As a result of his patient approach, he has an absurd 93-percent zone contact rate.

The issue with Kiner-Falefa’s production at the plate, however, is that all of this contact doesn’t exactly translate to good contact. His hard-hit rate (28.8 percent) placed him in just the sixth percentile across the league, while his barrel rate (1.8 percent) is even worse, placing him in the third percentile. Additionally, despite a very low whiff rate, Kiner-Falefa actually placed in the worst percentile in the league for walk rate. In other words, he’s really good at picking out strikes and putting his bat on the ball, but it doesn’t really result in anything productive. Last season, this approach, coupled with his pedestrian-at-best launch angle, resulted in a 54.4-percent groundball rate.

In terms of concrete production, Kiner-Falefa slashed .271/.312/.357 with just eight home runs and 20 stolen bases. He posted a 4.1-percent walk rate, 13.3-percent strikeout rate, .293 wOBA, 85 wRC+, and was worth 2.3 fWAR, no doubt thanks to his defensive prowess. For his career, Kiner-Falefa has slashed .265/.316/.354 with 16 homers, a .294 wOBA, 81 wRC+, and 2.0 fWAR.

Is Kiner-Falefa the answer at shortstop? I would certainly hope not, to say the least. But we all know that Brian Cashman likes to take on reclamation projects, and the development staff does deserve credit for turning one glove-first infielder—Gio Urshela—into a fairly solid hitter, so I suppose it’s worth mentioning his name as a possibility, as remote as it may seem.

The hard data, in conjunction with his lack of offensive production, however, suggests to me that should the Yankees pursue a trade for Kiner-Falefa with the Rangers, he would be more of a Tyler Wade replacement and less of a starting shortstop. Even if the Yankees were to choose to pursue a stopgap shortstop, which is looking increasingly likely given the state of the free agent market, he simply does not produce enough to be useful on the team in that role. Ultimately, I can’t imagine giving up prospects for the level of production that Kiner-Falefa would bring to the team when other glove-first options are available for just money. As the last 24+ hours have shown, though, stranger things have happened.