After losing shortstop job, IKF embracing chance to play CF

April 2nd, 2023

NEW YORK -- The play was routine, a ground ball to the left side of the infield under the lights at George M. Steinbrenner Field on March 3. charged from his position at shortstop, felt the ball clank off his glove and watched the Tigers’ Tyler Nevin reach first base on the error.

This wasn’t working, Kiner-Falefa thought to himself that night, pounding a fist into his palm as a non-verbal apology to pitcher . With and each seemingly ready to take over as the Yankees’ shortstop, Kiner-Falefa soon discussed a drastic position switch with manager Aaron Boone.

“I understood,” Kiner-Falefa said. “There were two great shortstop prospects that could help the team. And for me being an older guy, I definitely saw that. Instead of battling it out, I wanted to give myself an opportunity to stick on the team. I felt like them giving me an opportunity allowed me to still be here.”

Sunday marks the first stage of that transition, as Kiner-Falefa prepared to man center field against the Giants at Yankee Stadium. The 28-year-old appeared twice at shortstop after the error behind Cole, then moved from second base to third base, playing his first game in center field on March 17 against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.

That uneventful contest brought five more assignments in the outfield -- two in left field and three in center, including six innings of duty patrolling a Major League center field on Tuesday at Nationals Park.

“He very much looked the part,” Boone said. “Now it’s about going out and doing it, getting that experience and doing it in games. I think skill-wise, he has the ability to do it and do it well.”

Said Kiner-Falefa: “The BP work and the machine work was very helpful. Just getting in a game, getting comfortable and being next to [Aaron] Judge out there was a big help. The line drives were the tough ones, but I felt like everything else, I was able to feel comfortable for the most part.”

Kiner-Falefa drawing the start in center field on Sunday is notable, considering Boone selected him over veteran , who has yet to start this season.

has started three consecutive games in left field, with Judge moving from center to right field, where had started the Yanks’ first two games of the year.

“[Hicks] is going to play,” Boone said. “Today was not necessarily the matchup I loved. I would probably expect him to be in there the next couple of days.”

Kiner-Falefa started 131 games at shortstop last season, and though he committed 15 errors, the organization frequently pointed to advanced metrics that suggested he was among the American League’s better defenders.

That narrative shifted during the postseason, however, as Boone cited Kiner-Falefa’s tentative reactions in benching him for Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Guardians. Kiner-Falefa started just two of the Yanks’ remaining six games in the playoffs, with Boone preferring Cabrera and Peraza.

“I think sometimes I got caught up in being too perfect and caring about how I looked, instead of finishing the play,” Kiner-Falefa said.

Kiner-Falefa said he believes spending innings in the outfield will allow him to play more freely than in his old assignment.

“I played safety and defensive back growing up. The footwork is almost the same,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I just kind of take that and apply it out there; the same feelings out there, just watching the quarterback. I just have my feet ready to go and be athletic.”