Kiner-Falefa deal raises floor for Blue Jays, who have more work ahead

New York Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa throws to first to force out vs. Toronto Blue Jays during MLB baseball action in Toronto on Tuesday, September 27, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP Photo)

TORONTO – Bit by bit, the Blue Jays’ off-season is taking shape, with the pending addition of Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a two-year, $15 million deal being the second move of a busy week for a Toronto front office that started slowly.

The deal, which was confirmed to Sportsnet by industry sources Wednesday, was first reported by Robert Murray of FanSided.

In Kiner-Falefa, the Blue Jays add a player who offers youth (he’s 28), versatility (he appeared at every position but first base and catcher in 2023) and contact skills (his career strikeout rate is just 15.5 per cent). While his 2024 role hasn’t been finalized, the right-handed hitting utility player is sure to appear in most of the team’s games next year if healthy.

Where that playing time comes depends on what else the Blue Jays do this winter, and it’s fair to assume at least one more move is on the way even after adding Kiner-Falefa and Kevin Kiermaier on consecutive days. By agreeing to terms with Kiner-Falefa and Kiermaier, the Blue Jays added two Gold Glove winners, but there’s still a need for power in the middle of Toronto’s lineup.

There’s no need to panic on that front, as the Blue Jays are a contender with cash and playing time at DH – a tough combination to beat. With J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins, Justin Turner, Teoscar Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Joey Votto among those available in free agency, there are plenty of bats to choose from. It’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays won’t land one. Still, until a deal’s done for a bat capable of replacing Brandon Belt, this team will look incomplete. 

In the meantime, Kiner-Falefa gives manager John Schneider more options, whether he’s setting his starting lineup or making substitutions mid-game. A lifetime .261/.314/.346 batter, Kiner-Falefa’s typically been used as a No. 7 or 8 hitter due to his modest power. Projections view him similarly for 2024, with Steamer forecasting a .264/.318/.363 batting line.

Still, he offers a little speed with 14 stolen bases in 19 attempts for the 2023 Yankees and 74 steals in 98 career attempts.

More importantly, Kiner-Falefa offers real defensive versatility. He debuted as a third baseman/catcher but like his new teammate Daulton Varsho, he’s transitioned away from catching, with his last action there coming in 2019.

In 2020, he won a Gold Glove at third base, and he played shortstop in 2021 and 2022. But the Yankees weren’t impressed with what they saw from him at short in 2022, and Anthony Volpe was big-league ready, so Kiner-Falefa spent most of his time in the outfield this past season, mainly centre and left. 

With Kiermaier and Varsho in place, there’s less need for Kiner-Falefa to handle centre in Toronto, though his ability to hold his own there is certainly a bonus. It’s perhaps more likely that he’ll spend time at second and third base this coming season, but – again – that’s dependent on what other moves follow.

Even with Kiner-Falefa on the roster, the Blue Jays would still benefit from adding Matt Chapman, one of the top free agents available, yet this latest move seemingly reduces the urgency for the Blue Jays at third base. Along those lines, it’s now even harder to see a fit for Cody Bellinger in Toronto now that the Blue Jays have three centre-fielders on their roster. 

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It’s also worth noting that the Blue Jays now have two backup options to Bo Bichette at shortstop, which opens the door to a trade involving Santiago Espinal should the Blue Jays want to explore such a move. They have shown some off-season interest in Amed Rosario and Gio Urshela, two players who offer similar skill sets, but it’s not clear how strong that interest is now that Kiner-Falefa’s in place.

At this point, it’s becoming more likely the Blue Jays add three or four useful position players instead of structuring their winter around one superstar. This wasn’t plan A – everyone agrees on that. But Kiner-Falefa helps raise the floor of this roster, and that’s important. Now it’s up to the front office to find ways to raise the lineup’s offensive ceiling, too. 

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