Rangers' Kiner-Falefa Hopes to Cap Off 2020 Season With a Gold Glove
For the most part, 2020 has been a season to forget for the Texas Rangers and their fans. The starting rotation didn't play out as expected, the lineup fell victim to Murphy's law, and the front office wasn't able to land the deal they were looking for at the trade deadline.
However, there have been some highlights. It's been a breath of fresh air to see some of the younger prospects thrown head-first into the deep end of the pool—five of which had never played above Single-A. Some have already established themselves as strong candidates for the 2021 club while others have shown us why even the lower levels of the minor leagues are still important.
One of the main highlights of this 2020 season has been the performance of Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The Rangers' third baseman won the job at the hot corner after the club had signed Todd Frazier over the winter to primarily fill the void. Kiner-Falefa was the club's best player at Spring Training, then carried it over to Spring Training 2.0, giving manager Chris Woodward no choice but to put him in the lineup and utilize Todd Frazier's flexibility across the diamond.
Unlike Rougned Odor, Kiner-Falefa was able to take a strong performance from the spring and summer and carry it over into the regular season. It didn't take very long for Kiner-Falefa to show everyone that he had become the Rangers' best defensive infielder. Now, Kiner-Falefa is in line to be in the discussion for a Gold Glove at third base, which is something he's wanted long before the 2020 season.
"I had it in mind my rookie year," Kiner-Falefa told the media via Zoom on Tuesday. "That was my goal, especially coming from the minor leagues. I played against [Oakland's Matt] Chapman a bunch. I knew he was elite and I didn't feel like I was far behind. Having him win a couple, even the Platinum glove, actually boosted my confidence a little, having been able to see him so much in the minor leagues. Hopefully this keeps going and hopefully I get it this year."
Chapman won't be in the running for another Gold Glove as his season came to an end with a hip injury that required surgery. Going into Wednesday's slate of games, Kiner-Falefa leads all American League third baseman in Defensive Runs Saved and Defensive bWAR. Only Colorado's Nolan Arenado is above Kiner-Falefa is both categories in Major League Baseball, who will most likely win the award for National League third basemen.
In addition to his stellar defense, Kiner-Falefa has had a more-than-respectable season at the plate. He owns a .295/.338/.384 slash line with three home runs, eight RBI, and eight stolen bases. Until recently, Kiner-Falefa has batted near the top or bottom of the lineup, where opportunities for driving in runs are at a premium. Kiner-Falefa's .722 OPS is nearly identical to Mitch Moreland's .720 OPS in 2016, when he won a Gold Glove at first base for the Rangers.
In the bigger picture, even with the strong defensive season, there is a possibility Kiner-Falefa could move to another position next season. Chris Woodward told the media on Tuesday he anticipates the organization's top prospect Josh Jung to be with the club at some point next season. Jung's primary position? Third base.
If Kiner-Falefa does win a Gold Glove, it wouldn't be the first time the Rangers asked a winner of the award to change positions the following season. Texas asked Michael Young to make the switch from shortstop to third base following Young's 2008 season where he won a Gold Glove as a shortstop.
However, Kiner-Falefa does not sound opposed to any change of positions (as long as it isn't at catcher). It is worth noting that Kiner-Falefa believes the evolution of the positions plays into his favor as a new-age third baseman.
"The way I look at it now, it's like shortstop is almost more of a third baseman, the way that they play righties in the hole," Kiner-Falefa said. "The shortstop is actually kind of evolving to more of a hitter position in my opinion and less of a defensive position. You look when the lefty hits, the shortstop is behind second base and the range that they have to cover isn't much. They're just getting hot shots right at them more so of what a third baseman would usually get. So I think that benefits for me being a third baseman especially when lefties come up. I have that whole side to myself, rather than just a little maybe 15-20 foot area."
Earlier this season, Kiner-Falefa said he prefers the left side of the infield. From the look of it, any combination of Jung and Kiner-Falefa on the left side could be something Rangers fans see in 2021. Of course, incumbent shortstop Elvis Andrus will be fighting to keep his job heading into next season.
Kiner-Falefa's resurgence as an infielder in 2020 leaves no more debate that the catching experiment in 2019 is a one-and-done scenario. His 2020 season may or may not end with a Gold Glove award, but it will leave no doubt he'll be a part of the Rangers' core in 2021.