I first got the idea Isiah Kiner-Falefa had the necessary heart and guts to play big in New York when he came on MLB Network last June and complained that he was too low in All-Star balloting. Way too low.
I mean, here’s this guy with next to no power numbers playing for a Texas team buried in the standings, and he’s campaigning for votes against the likes of Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Bo Bichette.
I loved it.
Kiner-Falefa was 10th in voting at the time, and he reasonably should have been top five, if anyone knew his name (either one of them). But rather than just accept that’s life in the small city, he took his case to national TV.
Kiner-Falefa’s complaint, while good-natured, was appropriately pointed. He clearly had an edge about him. And confidence that would suit him well if ever got out of Arlington, Texas, and the second division.
Of course it wasn’t his call that Kiner-Falefa (or IKF as they’re calling him) came to the Big Apple, and it clearly wasn’t expected — not with those five great big-name shortstops on the big board this winter.
Seemed like a weird choice at the time. But it looks very prescient now.
In order of the major bucks the big five shortstops eventually signed for — all landed nine-figure deals — the winter shortstop options memorably included proven greats Corey Seager (who wound up taking Kiner-Falefa’s job in Arlington) plus Marcus Semien, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Correa.
Seager made the most sense for the Yankees, as he was known to hit great pitching, which works well in the postseason (what the Yankees really care about) and a lefty to balance out the lineup. But while the Yankees hurried to get Seager’s medicals just before he finalized his $325 million deal in Texas, they never got close and never made an offer.
Semien they liked, too. But not at the seven years he got, also from Texas. The Yankees might have happily done four or maybe even five.
Baez they never seemed to consider. Analytics people can’t appreciate his flair for the spectacular (there are no numbers for wow) and his market was limited to brief flirtations with the incumbent Mets and Red Sox before signing for $140 million with the Tigers, who talked to every shortstop under the sun. Story they talked to but that contact seemed mostly to be used while he was in the bidding for the rival Red Sox — not that there’s anything wrong with it (or really, not that they mind).
Correa appeared to badly want to be a Yankee if things couldn’t work out with his home team in Houston. The Yankees are said to “love him as a player,” but he had three enormous strikes against him.
One, he was an Astro, who some Yankees people seem to think stole the 2017 World Series that was rightfully theirs (never mind that the Dodgers took Houston to Game 7).
Two, he was close friends with Alex Rodriguez, who again seems beloved in some baseball, TV and basketball circles, but clearly not by the Yankees, who recall a memorably bad ending.
And three, Correa made those ill-timed, ill-conceived comments about Yankees icon Derek Jeter, which almost seemed lifted from the infamous Esquire article that precipitated the A-Rod/Jeter rift that turned them from besties to rivals oh so many years ago.
The Yankees did request Correa’s medicals (they must have quite a collection of those), but that one never really had a chance either.
The biggest reason the Yankees ultimately didn’t sign any of the big shortstops, beyond money of course, is that they have high hopes that Jersey boy (Watchung) and top prospect Anthony Volpe, who has a career .923 minors OPS, can be the next Jeter.
That left a menagerie of shortstop possibilities, many of whom were long shots and all of whom were not Seager or Correa and Co. Free agents Andrelton Simmons and Jose Iglesias and a long-shot trade for Dansby Swanson all became fleeting or more thoughts.
But in the end, in the year of big-name shortstops, the Yankees went for the fellow with two names. Maybe the Yankees saw that interview last July. More likely, the Yankees saw something in Kiner-Falefa well beyond the obvious moxie displayed that day.
The kid can play.
They knew he could handle the position, as he was among MLB’s leaders in defensive runs saved last year (fourth with 10, behind Correa, Simmons and Edmundo Sosa) while everything was falling apart around him in Texas. They liked his versatility (heck, he’s started at catcher!) and ability to make contact, but mainly he can play the heck out of the marquee spot. Defensively, he’s at least the equal of most of the big-name shortstops, though no one probably touches Correa in that area at the moment. So the Yankees made the big deal with Minnesota, where he was employed for a moment, sending Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez there for him plus Josh Donaldson and Ben Rortvedt.
Kiner-Falefa has been as advertised defensively (his 3 DRS are more than the big five). And offensively, he’s posted a 107 wRC+ (weighted runs created-plus, with 100 being the MLB average). Of course, with Aaron Judge on a salary drive and Anthony Rizzo using the short porch as his personal playground, as well as all other stars, the Yankees correctly figured they don’t need a ton of offense.
Turns out they didn’t need a big name, either. They just needed someone to do the job. And while it isn’t easy to see Kiner-Falefa moving up too much in All-Star balloting now that all those big names have moved over to the American League, at least some more folks are noticing what a fine player he is.