SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Mike Minor has an idea for the Rangers lineup.
"Isiah Kiner-Falefa ... fourth hole, batting cleanup,” Minor said. “I’ve been thinking about it.”
Why not? Kiner-Falefa entered Sunday tied for the Spring Training lead with four home runs, so maybe batting him cleanup is not that far-fetched an idea. So what if he's managed just 12 home runs in 2,392 at-bats over seven years in professional baseball?
There is a lot to think about with Kiner-Falefa, and that was his goal this spring. He came to Arizona planning to remind folks he's an infielder first and foremost, and in that role he can be a valuable member of a championship team.
“People forgot who I was, who I am,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I was fighting for my life to keep my job. The window was closing, and I had to open it up.”
He did so by reinventing himself. The Rangers wanted him to get stronger this winter, so he did. He also changed his stance: instead of being open and just trying to put the ball in play, he's now more square to the plate. As a result, his legs are in better hitting position, creating more power to drive the ball, and pitchers are having a tougher time throwing the ball by him.
He and his dad, Fili, worked on the adjustments for hours almost every day in a Honolulu city park with no fences. Kiner-Falefa would hit a bucket of baseballs, go retrieve them and do it all over again for 2-3 hours.
“I always felt I could hit, but it was a lot harder to time the ball when I was open,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I pretty much had to be perfect. Now when the pitcher comes at me, I can just fire my legs. Now that I am square, I am ready.”
He also doesn’t have to wear catching gear anymore. The Rangers attempt to switch him to catcher ended last summer.
“People kept saying 'he needs to do this, he need to do that' without realizing what I was doing,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I was catching for the first time my whole career and I was doing it at the highest level. People didn’t realize the toll it takes, mentally and physically.”
Kiner-Falefa came to camp determined to win a spot as a utility infielder and probably tried too hard at the beginning. He was hitless in his first 11 at-bats before manager Chris Woodward told him to relax and quit worrying about making the team. Since then he has 11 hits, including four home runs, in 18 at-bats.
“Obviously, he was putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Woodward said. “I wouldn’t say he was panicking but I just stressed to him 'relax, let all that work you put in show up and shine.'”
Kiner-Falefa is competing for a utility spot on the bench with Nick Solak, Matt Duffy and Rob Refsnyder, among others. That rosters have been increased from 25 to 26 for the regular season, including a four-man bench, allows for the possibility of two utility players, along with a backup catcher and fourth outfielder.
Kiner-Falefa is making it hard to keep him off the Opening Day roster, Woodward said.
“He is making a pretty good case, not only with the bat but with the way he plays defense,” Woodward said. “I look at him as an elite defender, especially at third base. He can go up the middle. He can play shortstop at a really high level. That versatility is huge. The bat quality is as good as we have right now. He’s got the total package going.”
The bigger question may be if Kiner-Falefa ca hit his way into an everyday role. That possibility may arise if Ronald Guzmán and/or Greg Bird fail to earn the job at first base and Todd Frazier has to move over there.
“Obviously in Spring Training I am not going to get too caught up in that,” Woodward said. “He’s got to be consistent. All of our guys do. Our first basemen have to be consistent. It’s still early. If he consistently hits the ball the way he does ... it’s an everyday approach right now. I have to see it more."