Texas Rangers: How does Isiah Kiner-Falefa fit into the everyday lineup?
By Kenneth Nash
How can the Texas Rangers going about fitting Isiah Kiner-Falefa into the everyday lineup to start the season after his impressing spring?
Entering Spring Training, the outlook for Isiah Kiner-Falefa was either to fill a role on the bench with the big league club, or start the season playing everyday in Triple-A. The Triple-A scenario was unlikely but even with a few position battles ongoing this spring, Kiner-Falefa’s name was not considered one we’d see in the Opening Day lineup. Despite preconceived notions though, Kiner-Falefa has torn through the Cactus League and by the second week of March, looks like a player that is a must to start, at least to open the year.
Kiner-Falefa’s spring has been one to remember as he continues to obliterate the ball at the plate. Known as a solid defender all around the infield dirt, Kiner-Falefa’s Spring Training numbers with the bat are eye-popping. In 13 games, the 24-year old is hitting .419 and has an 1.293 OPS. His four home runs leads all Texas Rangers this spring as does his 11 RBIs. Not only do the numbers stand out, but the speed at which the ball seems to be coming off the bat is noticeably higher than we’ve seen from IKF in years past.
Generally we take Spring Training numbers with a grain of salt. Pitchers are not alway pitching to get outs but rather are working on some specific pitch or location which makes them hittable. It’s also a small sample size so it can sometimes be as simple as a player swinging a hot bat at the right time. With Kiner-Falefa though, the eye test agrees with what the numbers say which is that Kiner-Falefa seems like a different hitter at the plate.
If the season started today, getting Kiner-Falefa into the lineup seems like a given. However, how to do that could mean some shuffling of players in the infield.
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Kiner-Falefa at Starting Third Baseman?
The Rangers signed Todd Frazier this offseason with the intent on him opening the season as the Rangers everyday third baseman. However, baked into that signing was the idea that Frazier could maintain flexibility for the team by sliding over to first base if need be. That flexibility opens the door for Isiah Kiner-Falefa to start the season at third base.
Defensively, Kiner-Falefa has over 550 innings at third base at the big league level and has shown an ability to be a plus defender. His career UZR/150 at third is 8.7. In fact, Kiner-Falefa is likely the best defensive option Texas has at third base this season.
By moving Kiner-Falefa to third, the Texas Rangers also can help solve their productivity problem at first base, at least in the short term. Arguably the last remaining position battle in Spring Training is the one between Ronald Guzman and Greg Bird to open the season as the Rangers first baseman. Guzman has outperformed Bird this spring, but regular season woes have lowered the buzz around Guzman and his remaining minor league options could mean he’s the odd man out. Still, Bird is not a confidence-inspiring option at first for a club intending on being in contention for a playoff spot this season. By moving Frazier to first, Texas can use Bird or Guzman as a left-handed platoon option, which is how they fit best at this point.
A platoon would play well for Frazier who excels against left-handed pitching but sees a significant drop-off against righties. Guzman has much better splits against right-handers as expected however Bird, despite being a lefty, has better career numbers against left-handed pitchers. The question would now be which first baseman makes the roster as a platoon partner. Guzman fits the role better and has the defense to be a strong late inning substitute. However, will the Texas Rangers want Guzman up with the big league club playing intermittently or would they rather him continue to develop at the plate in the minors where he can play every day?
This Texas Rangers team was going to need players to step up this season if they wanted to have a shot at contending for a Wild Card spot and Isiah Kiner-Falefa fits the bill as a player with talent who can help solve a number of problems. An infield of IKF, Andrus, Odor and Frazier looks better given Kiner-Falefa’s current form, than one with Frazier at third and either Bird or Guzman at first base. This is contingent of Kiner-Falefa continuing to hit, however the lineup shuffling he’s creating is a good problem to have for the Rangers.