The New York Yankees swung a huge trade on Sunday night, bringing in third baseman Josh Donaldson, catcher Ben Rortvedt, and utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa. General manager Brian Cashman sounds sold on the idea of deploying the latter as the starting shortstop, per the New York Daily News:
“We feel by doing this trade we upgraded defensively and offensively at third and at shortstop and placed [Gleyber Torres] in a position that he’s best at: second base,” Cashman said Monday after the Yankees workout at George M. Steinbrenner Field. “So I think the infield side upgraded for the defense and on the catching side as well. So I think that the overall feel for us is that it’s settled a lot of interests on our end with one transaction, with one particular team.
Kiner-Falefa is the only member of the recently acquired trio who can play shortstop. But the fact that the Yankees landed him in the trade shouldn’t stop them from pursuing a better alternative for the position, especially with Carlos Correa and Trevor Story still available. Kiner-Falefa is really much better suited for a utility role.
For starters, the former Ranger’s offensive ceiling is fairly limited: he is a career 81 wRC+ hitter, and the figure sat at an underwhelming 85 in 677 plate appearances in 2021. For a 2021 Yankees comparison, he was roughly the same at the plate as the maligned Rougned Odor, who ended the year at an 83 wRC+. On the season, Kiner-Falefa slashed .271/.312/.357 and an uninspiring Statcast profile:
Kiner-Falefa makes a lot of contact and has a sprint speed that ranks just a little better than the Greg Allen, but at nearly 27, it’s unclear at best if he’ll make any major advances at a hitter. He has never really approached even a 100 wRC+ in any season of his career, and before any Didi Gregorius comparisons are made, it should be kept in mind that Gregorius was only 25 when he was acquired. By age 26, he had at least closed in on a 100 wRC+ with a 97 in 2016, and unlike Kiner-Falefa, there was at least a glimmer of lefty power for him to tap into. A different kind of turnaround at bat might still be possible, but it seems like a long shot.
On defense, the eye test tells us Kiner-Falefa is a very good fielder at the shortstop position, but the numbers disagree between them: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) think he is very good, at 10 and 1.2, respectively. However, he ranked in the fourth percentile in Statcast’s Outs Above Average with -7 (-14 going in and -1 going back, but he was a positive to both sides). Additionally, he had -9.8 in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which is a play-by-play defensive metric, rather than zone-based.
The eye tells us that Kiner-Falefa is capable of doing things like this, though:
Isiah Kiner-Falefa has one hell of a glove pic.twitter.com/maOIy19eOm— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) March 15, 2022
Kiner-Falefa has the perfect profile to be a utility infielder, capable of playing third base, shortstop, and even catcher in a pinch since he regularly played behind the plate as recently as 2019. That ability should be pivotal for roster construction. And it’s certainly cool that he grew up as a Yankees’ fan (it doesn’t hurt!). The Yankees should not consider him as their stopgap shortstop, though.
The Yankees can undoubtedly still afford splurging for Correa or Story, and it’s in their best interest to capitalize on Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge’s prime. Therefore, they should be prioritizing shortstop, but it looks like they won’t do that anymore and will simply settle for Kiner-Falefa’s at-best mere adequacy. I sure hope I’m wrong.
Kiner-Falefa remains an attractive option to fill a utility role: he can defend three positions decently, or good, depending on your particular view and which stats you like. But even the still-not-ready Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera can arguably offer more offensive upside than him.