After Gleyber Torres’ down 2021 season and eventual move back to second base, it became clear that the Yankees needed a shortstop this offseason. Luckily for them, there were plenty of options available. The free agent shortstop class was headlined by stars Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, but also included several second tier options like Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, and Javier Báez. There were plenty of choices out there if the Yankees wanted to take them.
Then several of those names went off the board before the lockout. Once that ended, it eventually became clear that the Yankees weren’t going to take any of those choices.
On March 13th, the Yankees and Twins made a high profile deal, headlined by Josh Donaldson coming to New York with Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela going the other way. However, there was more than Donaldson in that deal for the Yankees. One of the players now wearing pinstripes is the man who, unless there’s some other unexpected move on the cards, will be the Yankees shortstop: Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
2021 Stats (with Rangers): 677 PA, 8 HR, .271/.312/.357, .293 wOBA, 85 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR
2022 ZiPS Projections: 647 PA, 9 HR, .278/.320/.377, .304 wOBA, 93 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR
The Yankees’ meager attempts at acquiring one of the bigger name shortstops available seems to indicate their beliefs that Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza or both will stick at the major league level within the next couple seasons. That means they’re seemingly going with Kiner-Falefa, whose career so far has consisted of light hitting and solid defense.
Over his four-year MLB career so far, Kiner-Falefa has put up a wRC+ above 90 just once. Even then, it was only 94 and it came in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He’s at least cracked the .270 mark in batting average the last two seasons, but those marks have come with not a lot of power and not a lot of walks.
Once upon a time, the Yankees traded for a light-hitting shortstop only for it to work out perfectly, when they acquired Didi Gregorius ahead of the 2015 season. Is there any reason to think maybe the Yankees have found another shortstop who could become a valuable bat if they manage to unlock something in their approach/technique? Well, his underlying numbers don’t exactly indicate that.
There’s some hope there that maybe playing in AL East parks could give him a bit of a power boost. However, unless the new hitting coaches are true savants, it’s hard to picture Kiner-Falefa turning into a genuinely good hitter.
One area where Kiner-Falefa should be a real improvement is on the defensive side. As mentioned, Torres fielded the position so badly last year that he ended up getting moved back to second base. After that, the Yankees mostly used Urshela there. While Urshela performed admirably at short, he only had 85 career MLB innings there, with the most recent coming in 2018. IKF’s probably not going to be the second coming of Ozzie Smith, but at the very least, he should be serviceable at short.
While it seems unlikely this year, should a shortstop prospect force the Yankees’ hand, or the teams goes out and acquires someone else for the spot, Kiner-Falefa could be a perfectly useful super utility guy. He’s played over 100 MLB innings at second and third base, plus over 500 at catcher. While admittedly he hasn’t played there since 2019, that catching factor could also prove useful in late game situations. None of the Yankees’ projected catchers are powerhouses on offense. If the Yankees want to pinch hit for their starting catcher, they can do so semi-freely. Most teams are reticent to do that in case the backup gets injured with the starter then unable to come back in. With Kiner-Falefa, they at least have a third catcher whose played a decent amount there.
It’s hard not to feel somewhat eye roll-y about how the Yankees have decided to fill their shortstop hole in 2022. However, there are definitely worse options they could’ve taken. Maybe.