The door was wide open for Isiah Kiner-Falefa at the end of 2018. But the Texas Rangers have downgraded his opportunity to a window that is quickly closing.
It’s natural to picture next season’s roster as the current season winds down. Put aside thoughts of potential trades and free agent signings for a moment. The Texas Rangers will have a ton of players competing for roles on the major league roster in 2020. One of those players will be Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Kiner-Falefa’s situation is unique. He was the “play everywhere,” “where’d this guy come from” stud a year ago. He joined the big league club two Aprils ago, and his impressive composure and performance convinced the front office to keep him in Arlington. IKF ended up playing 111 games in 2018. He hit .261, reached base at a 33% clip and spanned four positions throughout the diamond.
The position he ultimately landed on was catcher. He ended up splitting time behind the plate with Robinson Chirinos towards the end of the year. With Texas’ middle infield set for the future (so we thought), and with Adrian Beltre‘s 2020 status unknown at the time, there was no obvious placement for Kiner-Falefa in the infield.
So, the Rangers thought to try him and train him at catcher. The team chose not to pick up Chirinos’ option this past offseason, and did not re-sign him. The decision threw Kiner-Falefa directly into the catching mix, and he started behind the plate in game two of the 2019 regular season against the Chicago Cubs.
Skip ahead five months and IKF is getting spotty playing time at third base. He’s appeared in only 59 games this season and has a poor slash line of .232/.301/.322. Frankly, it’s becoming more and more evident that the 24-year-old doesn’t project as an everyday major league player.
Furthermore, the emergence of Danny Santana and Nick Solak are not helping Kiner-Falefa’s future with the Texas Rangers. Santana and Solak also bring defensive versatility, and both are notably more productive in the batter’s box. Unfortunately for Kiner-Falefa, Santana and Solak will be strongly considered for opening day roster spots in 2020.
Could IKF return to catcher? That doesn’t seem likely, either. First off, he hasn’t hit well enough to red carpet any big league action. Secondly, the Rangers will have several catching options come spring training. Jeff Mathis should be back, Jose Trevino will be closely monitored and Sam Huff, this year’s Texas Rangers Minor League Player of the Year, could break the majors sooner rather than later.
The primary deterrent to IKF’s major league ambitions is his lack of power. A player who struggles to slug .400 and post an OPS of .700 is going to struggle to make a MLB roster. This is especially true in today’s game, in which league-wide home run records are being extended by the day.
I do believe Isiah Kiner-Falefa has a role in the big leagues, and that’s as a utility infielder. That’s not a bad thing, as utility infielders are more valuable now than ever given the number of days off “everyday” players are afforded throughout the year.
He’ll be a part of the Rangers’ game plan at some point next year, but don’t expect to see him very often. There’s a good chance the team will be sending him back and forth from the majors and the minors as players get hurt or as the roster demands it.
Texas is in the process of turning the corner; Isiah Kiner-Falefa may very well be left behind soon enough. In a span of one year, he went from future Texas Rangers catcher to being pushed out by too much competition. The only way for his outlook to improve is for him to become .300 hitter, or at least close to it. Otherwise, teams aren’t going to find a long-term fit for him.