Isiah Kiner-Falefa is Forcing His Way into the Rangers Lineup
ARLINGTON, Texas — Isiah Kiner-Falefa can do no wrong right now. At least that's what it looks like.
Kiner-Falefa was clearly the Texas Rangers' best player throughout Cactus League action. As Summer Camp began last week, there was concern over how or if he could continue the remarkable tear he was on in Arizona.
"I was a little worried. You see guys get in an early groove out there, whether it's the weather or that they are seeing first pitch fastballs or whatever. And then when the third deck and the lights go on, it's not the same," Rangers manager Chris Woodward said of Kiner-Falefa.
"But I'm seeing the same commitment to the strike zone. I'm seeing him square everything up. I'm seeing really good two-strike approaches. He's a dangerous bat right now and the way he defends, it makes it really easy to have a [significant role] on our club."
The Rangers were significantly weak at the corner infield spots heading into the offseason. They tried to land high profile free agent Anthony Rendon, but he wound up in Anaheim. The Rangers reportedly had preliminary discussions with the Rockies and Cubs about Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant, but nothing more. The Rangers did land free agent Todd Frazier to play third base, but his ability to shift across the diamond to first base gave the Rangers options heading into Spring Training.
Not only did Kiner-Falefa's performance in Arizona give the Rangers the super utility player they wanted, it forced the club to consider any way to get his bat in the lineup. With no frontrunner in the first base competition, the Rangers began to look at the possibility of Frazier sliding over to first base to give Kiner-Falefa at-bats at third base.
Then the pandemic hit.
“I was frustrated because I had put a lot of work into changing my stance, changing my swing in the off-season," Kiner-Falefa said. "I had to wait to really show it I haven’t had the opportunity to show it. It was just tough not being able to put in four months of extreme hard work and not being able to show it."
During the shutdown, Kiner-Falefa took the time to relax, clear his mind and slow things down while back home in Hawaii. He was not able to face live pitching for quite a long time out there and was only able to hit in a cage with someone tossing to him 15 feet away from him.
After arriving in Texas on June 26, the real work awaited Kiner-Falefa—trying to get back to where he was when camp was suspended in mid-March. From the very first day and each day after, Kiner-Falefa has continued to push for a bigger role with his play on the field. On Thursday, Kiner-Falefa continued that trend, crushing a Jesse Chavez pitch into the Rangers' bullpen in right-center field.
"Every day that's going by he's making it more and more [realistic]. You see the changes in his body, the changes in his swing and it's hard for me to not have him in the lineup," Woodward said. "All I can ask is for every player to approach their role that way. His role right now is to play a good third base, heck of a backup shortstop, maybe some second, even first. He told me can play the outfield. And we know he can catch."
So, is it still a possibility that Frazier slides over to first base and Kiner-Falefa slots in at third?
"100 percent," Woodward said.
Ronald Guzmán's return to Summer Camp after finally clearing intake testing allows the competition at first base to be truly resurrected. If neither Guzmán or Greg Bird take the bull by the horns again, the Rangers could find themselves in the same situation they were in back in March. And Kiner-Falefa's play could make that decision much easier.
"I view first base as maybe the biggest open competition we’ve got," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "There’s a lot of different ways we can go about it. With the positional flexibility a few of the guys bring, I think there’s a few different ways we can approach first base. As Woody said, in a 60-game sprint, there’s not going to be as much time to ride out certain things. We’re going to look for the guys who are ready to roll.”
If he maintains what he's doing, Kiner-Falefa may not give Woodward a choice but to put him in the lineup on Opening Day. It's a 60-game sprint. Every game carries much more weight than in the typical six-month season. With the shorter season, the Rangers' chances for a postseason berth significantly increases.
Summer Camp is only a week old, but Kiner-Falefa is as ready to roll as he's ever been.
"I'm going to go about my business as if we're trying to win the World Series, because that's what we are trying to do," Kiner-Falefa said. "If I'm the guy out there, then I'm the guy. If not, I'm still going to focus on doing what I can."