The Texas Rangers entered the 2021 season with many positions up for grabs. Only a select few were already claimed when spring training opened, and shortstop was one of them.
After Isiah Kiner-Falefa put on a defensive show at third base in 2020, and was recognized with a Gold Glove for that performance, the Rangers opted to move on from long-time shortstop Elvis Andrus and hand over the position to the Hawaiian native. Kiner-Falefa is a natural shortstop and looked to become the first player in history to win a Gold Glove at third base and shortstop.
After the first couple months of the season, it looked like Kiner-Falefa might pull it off. His defensive metrics were among league leaders across the board, and he was hitting well enough to put him among the likes of Carlos Correa and other All-Star shortstops in bWAR. As All-Star voting was coming to an end, Kiner-Falefa had built a solid case for himself.
However, he missed the cut for the Midsummer Classic. Meanwhile, his performance at the plate plummeted during the summer months. Kiner-Falefa sported a .730 OPS at the conclusion of May, but it drastically fell to a season-low .634 on Aug. 3. During this time, Kiner-Falefa said it felt like he was "drowning" and considered it one of the toughest stretches of his career.
"When I was down there, I didn’t know if I could get out of it,” Kiner-Falefa said. “That was the biggest part. It was almost like a trap. I just trapped myself. I was thinking small. I was thinking of the things that could happen in the future instead of understanding that, if I take it day by day day, I can overcome it. I’m a good player, but I wasn’t allowing myself to be good because my thoughts weren’t good.”
Kiner-Falefa focused on doing the things he knows he does well, and subsequently bounced back over the final two months of the season, putting up a .307/.358/.382/.740 slash line during that time. Though his defense remained at an elite level, Kiner-Falefa committed six of his 19 errors in September, which hurt his chances of winning a Gold Glove. Despite him finishing with an 8.4 SABR Defensive Index, which was third among AL shortstops and eighth among all AL players, he was not even selected as a finalist for the award.
All in all, it was a productive year for Kiner-Falefa, especially considering the lack of star power and veteran support in the clubhouse. It was also Kiner-Falefa's first full season manning one position, especially one that is more physically demanding than any other on the field.
Kiner-Falefa played 158 games in 2021, and started 155 of them at shortstop. No matter what he was going through physically or mentally, he took the field just about every time. That's not easy, especially when it's your first time.
Projected Starter: Corey Seager
Internal Options: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Marcus Semien, Andy Ibáñez, Yonny Hernandez
Rangers Blast A's In Ninth
Texas bats come alive late to take the series opener in Oakland.
Texas Rangers vs Oakland Athletics Pregame Notes: Martín Pérez Starts
The Texas Rangers start a four-game series at the Oakland Athletics on Thursday night
MLB Mock Draft: Rangers Nab Georgia Tech Catcher
Texas could be looking for depth at catcher, with Sam Huff the only backstop in the Rangers' top 30 prospects
Offseason Priority: ACCOMPLISHED
Before the owners of Major League Baseball locked out the players after the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Rangers spent $561.2 million in free agency to improve the club for 2022 and beyond. Highlighting the spending was the addition of Los Angeles Dodgers' shortstop Corey Seager, who signed a 10-year, $325 million deal to become the new shortstop of the Rangers.
Seager provides an immediate offensive upgrade to shortstop. Over seven seasons with the Dodgers, Seager slashed .297/.367/.504/.870 with 104 home runs and 364 RBI. The highlight of his time in Los Angeles was when he singlehandedly took over the 2020 National League Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field, helping the Dodgers win their first championship in 32 years as the Most Valuable Player in both series.
Though Seager is not as highly rated of a defender as Kiner-Falefa, he will take over the reins at shortstop. Kiner-Falefa is currently slated to compete with top hitting prospect Josh Jung for the everyday job at third base, where the Gold Glove winner has an obvious advantage.
There still is a possibility that Kiner-Falefa could eventually become a super-utility player for the Rangers—someone who is in the lineup on a regular basis but rotates positions all over the field.
If Kiner-Falefa cements himself in one particular role, whether it be third base or as a super-utility player, new second baseman Marcus Semien could also play shortstop if needed. Semien just switched from shortstop to second base with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021, where he set the record for the most home runs by a second baseman in a single season (45) and won a Gold Glove.
Even so, Semien played shortstop exclusively with the Oakland Athletics from 2015-2020. He has plenty of experience at the position.
Heading into 2022, the Rangers have not one, not two, but three players who have proven they can play shortstop at a high level every day for a full 162-game season. Very few teams can boast that.
More 2021 Positional Reviews on SI's Inside The Rangers:
Make sure to like SI's 'Inside The Rangers' on Facebook