Gleyber Torres’ 2021 struggles made it pretty clear that the Yankees needed a shortstop in 2022. Down the stretch of the ‘21 season, Torres’ play at short made it so that the Yankees moved him back to second and attempted to fill in at short with the likes of Gio Urshela and Andrew Velazquez. With the decision made that Torres was likely going to stay at second going forward, that left the Yankees with a pretty sizeable hole at shortstop.
Going into last offseason, they had a chance to address that hole in a big way. The shortstop market was pretty full with the likes of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and several others available in free agency. However with shortstop prospects such as Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza on the horizon, the Yankees opted against signing one of the big names. Instead, they made a trade to get a stopgap, and ended up with some stopgap-y results with the acquisition of Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
2022 Season Statistics: 142 games, 531 plate appearances, .261/.314/.327, 85 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Third year arbitration eligible
Not long after the lockout ended, the Yankees made a trade with the Twins, adding Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson, and Ben Rortvedt while sending Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to Minnesota. The trade in general has not gone great for the Yankees, but we’re here to focus on IKF.
Going into the season, everyone mostly knew that Kiner-Falefa was hardly going to be an offensive force. He hadn’t really ever had an above average offensive season in the majors, coming closest in the shortened 2020 season. In general, he mostly hit right around his career norms, putting up an 84 OPS+ after having produced 81 overall through the first four seasons of his career. It’s just that those norms are below average.
To be fair to Kiner-Falefa, he did have a couple moments at the plate with some big late-game hits. Those included a game-tying, ninth inning double against the Guardians in April. He led off the 12th inning with an RBI single on September 7th, tying the game after the Yankees had fallen behind in the top half of an inning, helping prevent the August/September freefall from continuing. There was also the August 13th game against the Red Sox where he hit his first home run of the season and drove in all three runs in a much-needed 3-2 win.
While Kiner-Falefa did have his moments, he still put up just a .688 OPS in at-bats in late and close moments of the game, and OPSed just .551 when the game was tied. All of that would be easier to stomach if he was the glove-first, excellent defender that was promised. That didn’t really come to fruition either.
If you want to go strictly on errors, then Kiner-Falefa finished tied for 10th in all of baseball as he committed 16 over the course of the season. Several of them came at inopportune times, such as the one August 31st, that, instead of two outs, gave the Angels two on with one out and Shohei Ohtani at the plate. That immediately led to a three-run home run that helped the Angels win the game by a run. While it didn’t go down as an error on him, Kiner-Falefa was also part of the miscue that led to the Astros taking the lead for good in Game 4 of the ALCS, which ended the Yankees’ season. He similarly didn’t make any errors in Game 3 of the ALDS, but mistakes in that game eventually led to the Guardians’ walk-off that left the Yankees a game away from getting knocked out in that series. Obviously, defense goes beyond errors, but there’s not really any metric out there that points to him as a truly outstanding defender in 2022.
The other big issue is that while Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone, or anyone else obviously didn’t come out and say “yes, he’s obviously a stopgap,” we’re all able to read between the lines. Kiner-Falefa was in large part acquired while the Yankees waited out their shortstop prospects. One of them in Oswald Peraza played well enough to get the call up in September. Yet, when they did call him up, they still used him sparingly and persisted with IKF. Now on some level, yes, they got themselves into a bit of a pennant race late in the season. In those situations, teams might not want to risk playing a young player that they might not know what to expect from. However, the reviews on Peraza’s defense are all pretty good, so at worst it seems like they could’ve counted on him to be a glove first shortstop, which was what the point of Kiner-Falefa was. Plus, Peraza had upside at the plate, which he did show a bit of in a small sample size.
Eventually, Kiner-Falefa’s struggles did seem to be too much for the Yankees, as he was benched for Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS — only coming in as a defensive replacement for a pinch-hitting Matt Carpenter — and then again in Games 2 and 3 of the ALCS. In both cases, they eventually did bring him back, but it was telling that in some of the most crucial games of the season, they decided their best lineup didn’t feature him.