We all love to talk about the big time prospects, the exciting guys with the power or the power arms, but in every farm system, there’s that handful of guys who find their MLB homes on the end of benches - valuable in their own way. In Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Rangers may have been able to re-cast the utilityman mold.
The Rangers drafted the native Hawaiian in the 4th round of the 2013 draft, their fifth pick of that draft. Kiner-Falefa entered the system as a shortstop, but began splitting time between there and second base almost immediately.
It wasn’t until his third year as a member of the system that the Rangers started adding to his defensive arsenal, having him spend time at all four infield positions, and a few games in the outfield with the Hickory Crawdads in 2015.
Entering 2016, the Rangers picked a few of their young farmhands to try an unconventional experiment with. Kiner-Falefa, along with Josh Morgan, picked up the tools of ignorance, despite having never professionally played the position. Morgan ended up not playing any official games at catcher in 2016, but Kiner-Falefa spent a good 33 games behind the plate - but also 44 at third base, and 19 at shortstop.
The unusual thing about Kiner-Falefa is how much he’s taken to this role. Teams don’t explore this avenue as much as you’d think, simply because catching is incredibly difficult, plus a physically and mentally consuming position, and to ask someone to pick that up and keep playing other positions over an extended period of time is a good way to burn a player out, unless it’s the right player.
Kiner-Falefa did struggle with the bat in 2016, as he was learning the position, but in 2017, he’s blossomed offensively in double-A Frisco, not just hitting for a high average, but finding a bit of a power stroke, something he’s never had before.
The question here is, then - “Is Kiner-Falefa a good catcher?” Quite simply, yes. He’s not some defensive genius, but he has solid fundamentals, and a strong arm. In fact, it might not be a stretch to say that he’s a better catcher for coming to the position late.
Unlike a jr. high or high school catcher, who may not have access to a coach with experience at the position, Kiner-Falefa’s been working with the coaching staff of a major league team since the very beginning. He has no bad habits to unlearn, because he’s never learned bad habits.
When watching him catch in Frisco, it’s easy to not see him, which is ideal for a catcher. He’s quiet behind the plate, and while he’s probably never going to be an elite-level framer, he’s also not going to cost his pitcher strikes. Just to be as good a catcher as he is at this point shows a level of talent and dedication that will serve him well through his entire career.
Unlike some other catcher conversions, Kiner-Falefa’s not coming as a permanent first baseman. In the infield, he’s a solid defender as well, with the ability to range to either side learned from playing short, second, and third.
He’s not yet a solid outfielder, but he’s only spent a grand total of nine games at any position there, and with enough time and repetition, he has enough natural fielding instinct and athleticism to at least not kill a team there for a few innings.
What does this mean for his future, though? At the very least, it gives him a high possibility of making the big leagues - and as others have noted, he could be a National League manager’s favorite player.
He’s a good guy for an emergency, or when you want to make a double-switch, but don’t want to carry more than one extra player on your roster to leave room for as much relief pitching as possible.
Though he’ll never have the quantitative value that an Aaron Judge or a Joey Gallo will, that’s still a career in the big leagues, and a worthy one at that.
In addition to WFAA, you can find Kate's writing at Baseball Prospectus and FanRag. Follow her on Twitter @unlikelyfanatic.