The 2020 Texas Rangers came to spring training with a number of position players who either did not have a clear and obvious position or role, or who were not necessarily a lock for the role they were penciled in for.
Nick Solak, of course, came to camp as Hitter Without Portfolio, and he’s getting time in center field, while also being an option in left field, at DH, at second base, and maybe, possibly, first base or third base. Danny Santana was thought to be a super-utility guy this year, but appears likely to end up in center field.
Ronald Guzman is a first baseman, and just a first baseman, but after a disappointing 2019, the team appeared prepared to start him in AAA. Greg Bird is a first baseman, and just a first baseman, and as a lefthanded hitter, he and Guzman won’t both make the team, and as a guy with an opt-out at the end of camp, he’s got to be on the major league roster or will likely become a free agent.
Todd Frazier was signed to be a third baseman, but could also move to first base if the Rangers traded for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado (and all that talk seems to have disappeared), or could move between first base and third base as needed. Matt Duffy was signed on a minor league deal, and has been hurt and not good of late, but when he’s healthy, he’s been a quality defender with an okay bat at third base, and could give the Rangers an option as a utility guy or part-time third baseman.
And then there is Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The small Hawaiian, a fourth round pick way back in 2013, was pressed into major league duty in 2018 and did an admirable job, playing a lot of third base, catching some, and also handling second base and shortstop. He didn’t hit a ton — he had a .261/.325/.357 slash line — but his glove was good enough that he registered a 1.6 bWAR in 111 games, and he earned a lot of praise from the media and coaching staff for his makeup. He seemed to be someone to keep an eye on, someone who might exceed the expectations that had him as, best case, a versatile, light-hitting bench guy.
2019, however, was the opposite. While in 2018 he was a third baseman who was also to occasionally catch and handle other positions, for 2019, IKF was to a catcher, and just a catcher. Jeff Mathis, the Barry Bonds of pitcher handling, was brought in to tutor IKF on the finer points of the tools of ignorance, since IKF had only started catching a couple of years earlier. Rather than a terrific fielding infielder who could catch, IKF was going to be, in 2019, a catcher.
And it was a disaster.
Kiner-Falefa came to camp lighter, in an effort to be able to hold up to the physical pounding a catcher takes better. Being lighter sapped him of some of his (already not that great) pop at the plate. It didn’t help him durability-wise, as the grind took a physical toll, and he was, by most metrics, terrible defensively behind the plate. And then he sprained his finger sliding back into first base in early June, and that, effectively, was that for IKF, major league catcher.
Kiner-Falefa spent time on the injured list, and then went back to the minors, playing for both Frisco and Nashville. Kiner-Falefa, upon his return, was an infielder again, the team and the player deciding to move on from the catching experiment. He was called back up to the majors in August, but still didn’t hit, and the 2019 season ended up as largely a lost year for IKF, who slashed .238/.299/.322.
All the warm fuzzies from his 2018 season, all the comparisons to Michael Young and the talk that he would exceed expectations, were gone. He was a largely forgotten guy in the offseason, and to the extent anyone mentioned him, it was in the context of, well, if the Rangers don’t sign anyone, and Nick Solak can’t handle it defensively, and Danny Santana is needed elsewhere, I guess Isiah Kiner-Falefa could be the third baseman, if he had to be.
And that’s where things stood when camp opened less a month ago.
It didn’t take long, though, for the IKF buzz to start back up. He reported to camp bigger — he’s listed at B-R at 5’10”, 176 lbs., but the consensus seems to be he’s over 190 lbs. now. And it was good weight — this was a stronger Kiner-Falefa. He had worked with Michael Young in the offseason, and based on input from MY, changed his stance.
And when he was at the plate, everyone agreed, you could see the difference — this was not the old Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
We don’t have TrackMan or Statcast data from spring training, which is unfortunate, because given the limited sample sizes, that’s going to be a lot more meaningful in evaluating a player in spring training than just a raw stat line is going to be. The consensus, though, is that IKF is making better contact, and hitting the ball harder, than he has in years past.
And if we look at the numbers...well, IKF is having a video game spring. In 33 plate appearances, he’s slashed .419/.455/.839, with just 3 strikeouts against 2 walks, and with an astonishing 4 home runs.
4!!!! home runs!!!
You may recall that not hitting home runs was IKF’s thing for a long time. He didn’t hit any home runs in 2013, in 169 plate appearances in the AZL. He didn’t hit any home runs in 329 plate appearances in 2014, split between the AZL, Spokane and Hickory, and he only had 10 extra base hits In 2015, 401 plate appearances, no home runs, and only 14 extra base hits, split between Hickory and High Desert (and if you can’t homer in the Cal League, well...).
2016, a season spent mostly in Frisco, 468 plate appearances, 0 home runs, 10 extra base hits. He was, to use a trope, a gritty gamer, but he had no power. A .030 ISO in AA isn’t good for someone who hits for a high average. And IKF didn’t hit for much average, either.
2017 was different. He had his first home run as a pro — 5 of them actually, along with 31 doubles and 3 triples in 569 plate appearances. He got his ISO up to .102, and having an ISO that doesn’t start with a “0” is always a good thing.
2018 and 2019 were similar — 4 major league home runs in 2018, 1 major league home run and 2 minor league home runs in 2019. He at least didn’t have zero power anymore, though there still wasn’t a ton of juice in the bat.
But that’s what makes the fact that Isiah Kiner-Falefa has 4 home runs in 33 spring plate appearances so remarkable. He’s only had two seasons when he’s had as many as 4 home runs, with a high of 5. And now he’s in camp, and he’s bigger, and he’s hitting the ball harder, and he’s getting results.
And to be clear, I don’t think — and I don’t think anyone else thinks — IKF is suddenly a 20 home run guy. That’s not realistic.
But if he has some doubles power and can hit the occasional home run...well, that’s a decent player.
That’s especially a decent player when you combine that with exceptional third base defense, which he has displayed.
And it makes you think maybe, just maybe, the Rangers had their 2020 third baseman sitting under their noses all along.
I think the expectation coming into camp was that Willie Calhoun would be in left field, Danny Santana would be in center field, Todd Frazier would play third base, Ronald Guzman or Greg Bird would play first base, Nick Solak would play a little of everything, Matt Duffy would get a chance to show he was healthy and could be useful, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa would be...well, an afterthought. He’d be in AAA, or maybe on the bench in Texas playing once or twice a week.
But now Calhoun has a fractured jaw, and is likely to miss a good chunk of time. Solak is going to likely take over in left field, meaning that he can’t fill in elsewhere. Guzman and Bird are both having rough camps. Duffy hasn’t shown much. And Isiah Kiner-Falefa looks like he has taken a huge step forward with the bat.
Which has me now thinking...maybe IKF is going to be the regular third baseman this year. Maybe not immediately...maybe the Rangers keep Bird or Guzman on the roster, start them against righthanders, and have Frazier move over to first base against lefties, with IKF playing third base. Maybe IKF also backs up in the infield and plays semi-regularly to start the year.
Or, maybe, the Rangers decide neither Guzman nor Bird are getting the job done, slide Frazier to first base, and hand the hot corner job to Isiah Kiner-Falefa, betting that he can give them a 95-100 wRC+ and well above average defense at the position, which would make him a potential 2-3 win player.
At this point, that’s what I’d bet on happening this year.