This Yankee took his role change in stride

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This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch’s Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa sensed a change underway in the Yankees’ infield this spring, recognizing that he was increasingly competing for the shortstop job in name only.

Top prospect Anthony Volpe was in the midst of a terrific rookie camp and the organization was high on Oswald Peraza, which prompted a tough look in the mirror for Kiner-Falefa. Playing shortstop for the Yankees had been his dream since boyhood in Hawaii, and he had the opportunity to live it in 2022.

Now, his choices seemed to be between leaning into a trade that would end his pinstriped tenure or increasing his positional versatility to help the team in other ways. Kiner-Falefa chose the latter.

“I accepted it,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I don’t think my numbers last year were good enough to hold the spot, so it is what it is. I didn’t do good enough last year. I was given another opportunity to be here, so I’m just trying to do everything I can to show what I can do and why I’m here.”

So that’s how Kiner-Falefa found himself standing in center field for a Spring Training game in Lakeland, Fla. in the middle of March, trusting that his instincts and a few workouts with instructor Nick Swisher would translate into competent game action. Kiner-Falefa played that game without incident, then continued picking up occasional starts in the outfield.

Increasingly, manager Aaron Boone and his coaching staff recognized that Kiner-Falefa’s athleticism was translating nicely to a utility role. Kiner-Falefa describes his assignment as “getting ready for some lefties, and some righties that throw hard.”

“As much as I want to be in there every day,” Kiner-Falefa said, “those opportunities when I’m down, if I’m grinding and using them the right way, they help me develop my swing and give me opportunities to play better.”

Kiner-Falefa batted .261/.314/.327 with four homers and 48 RBIs in 142 games last year, ahead of a postseason that he best remembers for an early-morning text message received in a Cleveland hotel room, when Boone notified him that he would not be starting at shortstop in that night’s American League Division Series game.

Though Kiner-Falefa was disappointed to be bypassed then, he used that setback as motivation in his winter workouts, vowing to get stronger and put forth a better showing in ’23. Kiner-Falefa packed on some muscle and also tweaked his stance, bringing back a leg kick that he’d used in the Rangers’ system.  

“I just think I’m understanding my role a little more and when I’ll be playing, the type of pitchers that I might be facing,” Kiner-Falefa said. “It’s a little more studying and preparation on the guys that I might be facing, and being ready to go when I’m in there.

“I feel like the [muscle] weight has been helping me. Moving around, going from the outfield to the infield, has been helping my body as well. Those days off, sometimes they suck, but at the same time they’re opportunities for me to work with the coaches and keep progressing every day.”

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