Twins get new everyday SS with trade of Garver for Kiner-Falefa

March 12th, 2022

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- All Isiah Kiner-Falefa has ever wanted was to feel appreciated for his play at shortstop. He'll now get that every day in a Twins uniform.

In fact, the Twins felt so highly about Kiner-Falefa's defense and fit as their starting shortstop that they dealt former Silver Slugger Award winner Mitch Garver to the Rangers on Saturday in exchange for Kiner-Falefa and Minor League right-hander Ronny Henriquez, addressing one of their major outstanding needs ahead of the 2022 season.

"Kiner-Falefa was someone we really liked," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "We think heā€™s a Gold Glove-level defender. He won a Gold Glove a couple years ago, I know over at third base, but [he's] a guy who comes really highly regarded on the defensive side, plays every single day and can really fit at shortstop and can help us out."

TWINS RECEIVE: SS Isiah Kiner-Falefa, RHP Ronny Henriquez

RANGERS RECEIVE: C Mitch Garver

The trade does come at a steep cost, as Garver hit 31 homers with a .995 OPS as part of the "Bomba Squad" that set MLB's single-season record for round-trippers in 2019 and bounced back from a tough '20 with an .875 OPS last season. Without Garver in the mix, 24-year-old Ryan Jeffers will become the Twins' undisputed starting catcher, taking the reins after seeing part-time work over the last two seasons.

Falvey had previously said that the Twins were fine moving forward with two starting-caliber catchers, and he noted on Saturday that the Twins didn't enter the trade discussions with the intent to move Garver. But that's what it took to acquire Kiner-Falefa and Henriquez, the Rangers' No. 15 prospect, who will join the 40-man roster and enter the Major League conversation late this season or in 2023.

"We have a ton of respect for what Mitch brings to the field and still do, ultimately, but this just felt like the right trade for us now," Falvey said.

Falvey said the Twins had prioritized their conversation with the Rangers regarding Kiner-Falefa even before the lockout began in December, with an eye not only on the strong defense but on the 26-year-old's versatility, which includes big league experience at third base and catcher.

But all along, the Honolulu native has thought of himself as a shortstop -- and he's not shy to make the case for himself.

"I think I was a Platinum Glove winner until the last month of the season," Kiner-Falefa said. "My numbers blew everybody out of the water, if you look at the sabermetrics."

In regard to advanced fielding statistics, Ultimate Zone Rating had him at 1.2, 11th among qualified shortstops in '21, while Defensive Runs Saved had him as the third-best defensive shortstop in the game behind Carlos Correa and Andrelton Simmons. Though it's difficult to split his stated timeframe spanning April to August, Kiner-Falefa did note that the sudden transition back to shortstop tired his arm at the end of the season.

Outs Above Average, the Statcast metric, was much less rosy, grading him at minus-7 -- fifth-worst among qualified shortstops -- though he postulates that struggling with liners and pop flies in the new Globe Life Field played into that.

Though Kiner-Falefa is a natural shortstop, the Rangers converted him to catcher while he was in the Minors, bumped him to third base in '20 and finally moved him back to shortstop in '21 before he was once again shifted out of his position with Texas' blockbuster signings of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Kiner-Falefa hopes that being able to play shortstop consistently will put him among the game's best, and that'll be important considering he doesn't hit much, with eight homers, 20 steals and a .670 OPS in '21.

"It's who I am; it's what I do," Kiner-Falefa said. "I played shortstop my whole life until the Rangers wanted to make me a catcher. By the Rangers making me into a catcher, it kind of threw me off my whole shortstop development. Last year was the first time I'd played shortstop in maybe four years."

For now he'll have the chance to do so every day -- with Jorge Polanco as his backup -- until the Twins have a better idea of what to expect with Royce Lewis and Austin Martin, their top two prospects. Even if the two progress more quickly than expected, both they and Kiner-Falefa have the versatility to make things fit.

Kiner-Falefa -- who got a ringing endorsement from new bench coach Jayce Tingler, who spent time with Kiner-Falefa in the Rangers' organization -- hopes that the chip on his shoulder and clubhouse presence will take him far with the Twins.

"I've never been a prospect my whole career," Kiner-Falefa said. "Nobody has really believed in me. And I've got this far. The fact that I've got this far [when] no one has really believed in me, it means a lot to me. It's a lot to my own confidence. My self-confidence is very high because I know what is expected of myself, even though nobody really expects anything out of me."

The Twins believe in him, and they moved one of the better offensive catchers in the game to give him a chance. He knows that, and it was clear in his voice on Saturday that he just wants to show them that it was the right move.