Isiah Kiner-Falefa enjoys a mostly smooth return to center field
LAKELAND, Fla. — The last time Isiah Kiner-Falefa played center field in a game that counted, he was still trying to break into the major leagues.
Back on June 17, 2017, “IKF” took to the middle of the outfield for the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, the Frisco RoughRiders. The game’s box score on MiLB.com notes a nondescript fielding error, but a past and present teammate remembers exactly what happened.
“Over his head,” Jose Trevino, who caught that game, quietly conceded when pressed for details. But Trevino added that that was only Kiner-Falefa’s second — and most recent — professional appearance in center. The other came on Aug. 5, 2016, also for Frisco.
“He did have a little trouble with one of them,” Trevino told the Daily News. “But he was fairly new to it. I feel like he’s better now.”
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That seemed to be the case on Friday, as Kiner-Falefa returned to center field to start New York’s 8-7 spring training loss to the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. An infielder by trade, the 27-year-old said he felt comfortable on a handful of flyballs, including New York’s first two outs of the game. He even said the aforementioned error a few years back, which came on a ball in the gap, taught him to run smoother routes and keep his head still.
“I was a little nervous going into it just because it’s a new position, but I had a lot of fun out there today,” Kiner-Falefa said after exiting Friday’s game. “I feel like I got tested in every way today for the most part.”
However, Kiner-Falefa’s afternoon was not without fault. He said that he should have gone to third on a throw home that was cut off. There was also a lazy flyball that fell between shortstop Anthony Volpe and left fielder Aaron Hicks; Kiner-Falefa took responsibility for the play, as he misread the card he keeps handy for defensive alignments.
“They put the spot and you have to kind of do the math to match your steps, because my steps and [Aaron] Judge’s steps are completely different,” Kiner-Falefa said, using a teammate with a significantly larger shoe size to explain what went wrong. “So yeah, I messed that one up today. I was supposed to be on the shortstop side but accidentally lined up on [the second base] side, so I couldn’t get there.”
Added manager Aaron Boone, who was otherwise complimentary of Kiner-Falefa’s performance in center: “He’s got to get the card lingo down so he knows where to be.”
Kiner-Falefa just recently began taking reps in center — he is still breaking his outfield glove in — as the Yankees hope he can be a helpful super-utility man after spending his debut season in pinstripes primarily at shortstop.
A light hitter, Kiner-Falefa’s defense at short hurt New York at times in 2022, and Boone ended up benching him for a few playoff games. One of those starts went to prospect Oswald Peraza, who performed well over a small sample last September. This spring, Peraza and No. 1 prospect Volpe have pushed Kiner-Falefa to the side in a competition to be New York’s starting shortstop.
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But Kiner-Falefa’s speed and versatility — he’s caught, played second and won a Gold Glove at third base in the majors — offers value, which the Yankees are trying to maximize with this center field audition. Boone added that he’ll look to get Kiner-Falefa time at the corner outfield spots as well.
“Izzy’s the type of guy that, you tell him to run through a brick wall, he’ll ask you, ‘Which one?’” Trevino told The News of his teammate’s willingness to move around the diamond.
Of course, there’s a chance that some other team benefits from Kiner-Falefa’s increasing versatility. With the two shortstop prospects both eventually expected to play up the middle and Oswaldo Cabrera also offering super utility prowess — DJ LeMahieu can move around the infield, too — the Yankees could trade Kiner-Falefa before Opening Day, or later on this season.
Boone, however, has appreciated Kiner-Falefa’s eagerness to do whatever is asked of him.
“That’s the thing about Izzy since he’s gotten here,” the manager said. “He just wants to win, and he wants to win in pinstripes. It’s important to him, and he’s worked really hard.”
The way Kiner-Falefa sees it, having several flexible players will only help the Yankees in their pursuit of a championship.
[ Yankees plan to move Jasson Dominguez around outfield after impressive spring ]
“To have the opportunity to play center field, it’s a big step and I’m excited,” Kiner-Falefa said. “You see guys like Chris Taylor, Cabrera, [Kike Hernandez]. In the last couple of years, the good teams had multiple guys like that. It wasn’t just one guy.”