Even with a busy offseason so far featuring one extremely splashy move, the Yankees are still angling for their big fish, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and appear to be ahead of the rest of the field. Should they snag him, a possible $300 million price tag will empty the coffers somewhat. Lower-cost free agent adds are likely to occur, especially on the position player side. Enter the incumbent Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Starting with the positives: FanGraphs projects a slight bump in IKF’s numbers at the plate next year. As a guy who sprays a lot of groundballs, he’s particularly vulnerable to BABIP volatility year-to-year. He has also shown a propensity for clutch hits, and while this gets overlooked sometimes, it is the main perk of his offensive skill set. It’s a strong trend, as in 2022, Kiner-Falefa hit .424 in high-leverage situations in 69 plate appearances, and followed that up with a 2023 mark of .321 in 32 times up.
The downside is that IKF just doesn’t hit the ball hard. And even for a contact-first guy, his whiff rate doesn’t really jump off the page. It’s a small example of the question plaguing many teams right now: should exit velocity act as the process-oriented end-all be-all when evaluating a hitter? How should high-leverage situations change the approach to focus more on immediate need, if at all? It’s a little old-school to say “that guy always just seems to find a way to poke one through in big spots”, but with Kiner-Falefa in high leverage, it often applies. For one example, here’s his walk-off single to beat Soto’s Padres at Yankee Stadium in May:
Kiner-Falefa was out of his depth as the everyday starting shortstop, and that’s not on him. He made some brutal errors in 2022 and the team wasn’t decisive enough in moving him off the position before the end of the year. In 2023, IKF seemed to find a more suitable home as a utilityman. He had never played the outfield in his big-league career prior to this past season, but he established neutral-to-positive defensive ability anyway.
The additions of Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo may limit available outfield innings, especially because IKF is not a justifiable regular in the best versions of the Yankees’ lineup. However, with the coaching staff’s propensity to give plentiful days off to players in their physical primes, there will be enough starts up for grabs to justify the cost. Unless something goes catastrophically wrong, or some infernal exposed concrete trifles with Aaron Judge again, the Yankees won’t need Kiner-Falefa to take more than 300 at-bats at the most.
Another part of the calculus is Soto’s poor defensive ability, namely his third-percentile range. If he needs to make business decisions in the outfield to protect his health, that’s fine, but a ninth-inning defensive replacement could be helpful if his spot isn’t due up again in the order anytime soon. One with clutch credentials to his name? Even better. Verdugo likewise does not move well laterally in the estimation of the eye test or the metrics. His overall range, though, isn’t bad and he has an elite but very inaccurate throwing arm with a tendency to airmail throws. He is a candidate to be supplanted by a late-inning replacement as well.
There is, of course, already a primary fourth outfielder under contract in the defensive whiz Trent Grisham, who came over alongside Soto in that blockbuster trade. It would not take much at all to see him pushed into a starting role though. One Giancarlo Stanton pulled muscle opens up the DH slot for Soto, Judge, or Verdugo with Grisham covering center and IKF thus becoming the primary backup. Some might consider it excessive to plan for a fifth outfielder, but the Yankees are absolutely the kind of roster that needs to consider it.
Although the organization has expressed their confidence in Judge’s ability to play center field often, fans may be hesitant to see the big slugger in such a demanding defensive role every day, making IKF’s super-utility status valuable to the team’s overall health. Down in the infield, young guys like Oswald Peraza are still complete question marks, while Kiner-Falefa is not. The Gleyber Torres question, as possible trade bait, also has yet to be firmly answered.
With respect to Kiner-Falefa’s demeanor, he follows the prudent Stanton philosophy of stoicism and accountability. The fans hadn’t turned on a shortstop so fervently since Didi Gregorius in his first year replacing Jeter, and IKF was indeed atrocious as an everyday shortstop but handled it well. Putting players in consistent positions to succeed has been a challenge for this coaching staff, but it’s now clear where IKF’s best role is.
Financially, the commitment would most likely be minimal. He received a slight raise in his final year of arbitration, earning $6 million, which was up from $4 million in 2022. If he’s willing to accept something similar on a one-year deal, then that’s seems perfectly reasonable for the tangible plug-in benefits in a multi-situational role. Flexibility, besides durability, is the best ability when it comes to roster construction.