The Texas Rangers start summer camp in two days, and the 2020 season appears slated to open in three and a half weeks (though we will know more exactly when that is once schedules are officially released). Rangers players have been working out on their own since spring training was put on hold, so this should be a matter of just getting used to game action and allowing the club to make some final decisions on the roster and lineup for 2020.
The Rangers came into camp this spring with five veterans for the starting rotation, and barring injury, a health issue, or something else unforeseen, the rotation appears to be set, with the only question being the order which pitchers will go behind Opening Day starter Lance Lynn.
Most of the lineup appears to be fairly well set, as well — Willie Calhoun’s recovery from his broken jaw means he should be the Opening Day left fielder, Danny Santana appears set in center field, Joey Gallo is in right field, Shin-Soo Choo will DH, Nick Solak will play a number of positions and probably start against most lefties, Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor are on tap to be the double play combination (though Solak could take away Odor’s spot if, as Chris Woodward noted, Odor’s process — as compared to results — isn’t what it is supposed to be).
To the extent there is a question about the lineup, it has to do with the corner infield spots. We know that Todd Frazier will be manning one of those positions — the 34 year old was signed to a one year deal with a team option this past offseason, and the thinking has been that he will be the team’s starting third baseman, but could move to first base if necessary.
The question about who will be across the diamond from Frazier, though, was still unsettled when COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic cause training camps to shut down. The expectation heading into the spring was that Ronald Guzman and Greg Bird would be battling for the starting first base job, or at least for the big part of a platoon at the position, while Sam Travis offered some depth and maybe a short-side platoon option. The Rangers, I am sure, hoped that Guzman would have a big camp and seize the job, and if not, Bird would show the injuries that have dogged him in recent years were behind him, and would provide them with a solid first base option in lieu of Guzman.
That didn’t happen this spring, however. Both Guzman and Bird had disappointing camps, with neither providing much reason for optimism. First base, seen as a hole coming into camp, was turning into a large, glaring hole, and a solution involving Frazier moving to first base was seeming more and more likely in March.
Matt Duffy was in camp back then, and from the time he was signed, I thought he was a possibility for the Rangers at third base, should Frazier go to first base. His track record is as a quality defender at the hot corner who hits enough, when healthy, to be at least an average starter at the position. The Rangers, however, ended up giving Duffy his release this week to allow him to go to the New York Yankees, where he was most likely going to have a better chance to stick on the roster, compared to Texas.
The Rangers also had Nick Solak, who had been bandied about as a third base option. Solak, however, has generally been considered sub-par defensively at third base, and while he has a first base mitt and has worked out at first occasionally, the team hasn’t seen him as a significant option there, likely because of his height (or lack thereof). When the 60 man pool was announced, Solak was listed as an outfielder.
Which brings us to Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Kiner-Falefa impressed everyone with his makeup and surprising performance as a rookie in 2018, and started 2019 sharing catching duties with Jeff Mathis. IKF struggled with the defensive aspects of the position, as well as the overall physical grind, and after a stint on the injured list due to a finger injury, IKF returned to playing just the infield in the final couple of months of 2019. Heading into camp, Kiner-Falefa was looked at as infield depth who could possibly be a utility infield option.
Kiner-Falefa ended up being one of the big stories of spring training, however. He reported to camp bigger and stronger (and one can see in the photo above he looks more filled out than in previous years), had one fewer home run in 2020 spring games (4) than he had in 618 major league plate appearances in 2018-19 (5).
Kiner-Falefa’s glove has long been considered legit, and his defense at third base is viewed as above-average, at a minimum. However, he hasn’t been viewed as having the offense necessary to be a regular, particularly given his lack of power. Even in 2018, he slashed .261/.325/.357, which is fine for a catcher or a utility infielder, but not for a third baseman.
IKF turned heads with his hitting this spring though, both with his results and with the underlying metrics. He was getting discussed as a possible third base option, either as a platoon guy (playing against lefties while Frazier moved to first base against righties) or as a starter (with Frazier moving to first base full time), when camps were suspended.
In this abbreviated camp, I think Isiah Kiner-Falefa may be leading Greg Bird and Ronald Guzman in the battle for a starting corner infield spot. He seems, barring injury or health concerns, to be a near-lock to make the 30 man roster to start the season, since he would be the top utility infielder option if he isn’t the regular third baseman, and I suspect that however things shake out, Woodward is going to get him significant playing time.
IKF being the starting third baseman would also benefit another young player who had an impressive camp — Eli White. White, acquired from Oakland in the Jurickson Profar trade, had a disappointing 2019 campaign with the bat for AAA Nashville, and ended up being exposed in the Rule 5 draft. After going unselected, White garnered a lot of praise this spring, particularly for his defense in center field — a position where the Rangers lack even an average defender on what would be the anticipated Opening Day roster.
White’s primary position in the minors throughout his pro career, however, has been shortstop. White isn’t considered good enough defensively to be a regular at the position, but he would provide the Rangers with a bench utility option should the Rangers decide to go with Kiner-Falefa at third base.
We shall see if White and Kiner-Falefa pick up on July 1 where they left off in March. If they do, expect both to be on the Opening Day roster.