On November 18th, the New York Yankees agreed to terms with Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a one-year deal worth $6 million, which ticked off a good portion of the fanbase. Why would management bring back a guy who was inconsistent in every facet of the game last season? He burned at-bats with his spot in the lineup, and it seemed as if his leash, despite the mistakes, was long. It took until the postseason for manager Aaron Boone to bench him, and after that it was thought that he would no longer be in pinstripes for 2023.
That is not the case. The problem with the Yankees retaining Kiner-Falefa is not that he’s being overpaid or that the term is bad. It’s that he is still on the roster, which gives Boone the chance to throw him in as the starter ahead of higher upside players like Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe. If it took Boone so long to move IKF away from the starting role at shortstop in 2022, then it’s anyone’s guess as to what could happen if one of those two young players begins to struggle in 2023.
There certainly exists the possibility for frustration with IKF as long as he on the roster. However, since he’s here, why not try and find where he fits best?
First, his ideal place is not in the starting lineup. One might argue that he could start over Josh Donaldson at third base if things get really bad at the plate and the Yankees need offense, but Donaldson’s third base defense last season was very good at seven defensive runs saved and seven outs above average. The latter figure ranked in the 90th percentile, so it’s hard to imagine the Yankees want to swap out that defense for a player who is a likely downgrade on offense.
Kiner-Falefa won a gold glove at third base with the Texas Rangers in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, and he looked somewhat competent at third base in the 42 innings he played at the position defensively in 2022, but the sample size is still too small to tell if he could be successful at a regular basis there, particularly with his bat unable to carry the load. He’s best used in a pinch at third if needed.
As for shortstop, I’m not sure any Yankees fan feels confident with him in the field at that position unless there have been some large strides made in his ability to play the ball coming in and his arm angle when he’s throwing to first base. Having him back at that position after last year may be the worst thing not only for Kiner-Falefa’s confidence but for fan morale as well.
At the end of the day, there isn’t really a “good” option. He’s still going to get some playing time, and the real problem starts if he ends up in the Opening Day lineup and playing more than the young guys Hal Steinbrenner said he wanted to take over the middle infield at some point in 2023. The best-case scenario, though, probably involves Kiner-Falefa spelling players across the infield. Playing backup to Peraza, or whichever young player mans shortstop, as well as to Donaldson at third could be a useful role for IKF to fill.
If anything, Kiner-Falefa’s most consistent playing time should come at third. Donaldson is 37-years-old and has been on the down swing in recent years, and the only thing keeping him consistently in the lineup is the power in his throwing arm. If Kiner-Falefa is going to be in pinstripes, his best chance at getting playing time should be on the corner of the infield, rather than at the expense of the Yankees’ more exciting young players. Giving those prospects a chance to shine has to be the priority for Boone, not penciling in Kiner-Falefa for another season.