Meet the New Shortstop, Moderately Different From the Old Shortstop

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While the top of the celebrated free agent shortstop market has yet to roll into motion, the end of last week saw a flurry of action a little lower on the positional power rankings. The Yankees agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, locking up his final season of team control. And as Friday afternoon progressed, four other teams linked up for an exchange of shortstops. A shortswap, if you will.

Gio Urshela went from the Twins to the Angels for 19-year-old pitching prospect Alejandro Hidalgo, Kyle Farmer went from the Reds to the Twins for minor league pitcher Casey Legumina, and Kevin Newman went from the Pirates to the Reds for reliever Dauri Moreta.

Let’s deal with the Kiner-Falefa re-signing first, and then tackle the trade carousel. Kiner-Falefa could probably be less popular among Yankee fans, but only if he ran for mayor. He came up with the Rangers as a catcher before moving to third and then shortstop, and the Yankees hoped to get the best version of him: An aggressive, high-contact hitter who could hit for a reasonably high average. He could make up for a near-total lack of walks or power (in five seasons in the majors, he’s never had an ISO of .100 or better), with good stolen base numbers and excellent defense. (After watching Gleyber Torres at short the previous few seasons, that last bit was a non-trivial concern.) He’s never been a great player but he’s usually been adequate.

That, right off the bat, is a little underwhelming — the Yankees normally have higher standards than merely “adequate” — and IKF had an up-and-down season. He didn’t take a leap forward offensively the way Urshela did in his first year with the Yankees; while Kiner-Falefa posted the third-highest contact rate among 130 qualified hitters, he hit just .261/.314/.327. And the defense? Merely average by OAA, but above-average by DRS. By the time the Yankees were imploding in the playoffs, Kiner-Falefa had been benched in favor of rookies Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza.

The Yankees obviously have the money to pursue one of the top free agent shortstops, just as they could have signed Corey Seager or Marcus Semien last year. But bringing IKF back indicates a belief that their long-term shortstop will be an internal option. It seems like the Yankees view Kiner-Falefa as a one-year stopgap, keeping the seat warm for either Peraza or Anthony Volpe, who should probably change his first name to some derivative of Oswald if he wants to fit in. At $6 million, Kiner-Falefa is a bit expensive for a backup infielder, but if one of the kids plays well enough to claim the starting shortstop job in spring training, that’d be a nice problem to have. If not, Kiner-Falefa is a safe pair of hands for a year, or at least the Yankees seem to think so.

The Yankees went with a known quantity, but if they’d decided to play around in the trade market, it turns out they had options:

Shortstops in the News
Player Previous Team New Team Proj. 2023 Salary* Proj. 2023 WAR
Gio Urshela Twins Angels $9.2 million 1.3
Isiah Kiner-Falefa Yankees Yankees $6 million 0.8
Kyle Farmer Reds Twins $5.9 million 1.4
Kevin Newman Pirates Reds $2.8 million 1.2
*According to MLBTR’s arbitration projections for Urshela, Farmer, and Newman

Sharp-eyed readers no doubt have already noticed that I’ve grouped Urshela in with the shortstops, even though he played just three innings there in 2022, and has made nearly 13 appearances at third base for every appearance at short over the course of his career. Part of that has to do with being blocked by bigger names — Carlos Correa last year, Torres during his time with the Yankees, and Francisco Lindor when he first came up with Cleveland.

Over the past few seasons, Urshela has been an impact hitter; since 2019, he’s hit .290/.336/.463, good for a 118 wRC+. With the Angels, he’s once again slated to play next to a big-name infielder, but a third baseman this time in Anthony Rendon. Or, because you’ll never go broke betting on Rendon to get hurt, Urshela can fill in at third if and when Rendon is on the IL.

With Correa likely on his way out, now seems like an odd time for the Twins to divest from an infielder with an above-average bat. And while Hidalgo has shown lots of promise in the past, he’s a 19-year-old who just missed half the season with a rotator cuff issue and came back for instructs throwing in the high 80s; this is not some elite pitching prospect Minnesota’s getting back.

But the Twins have options across the infield. Jose Miranda impressed as a rookie, hitting .268/.325/.426 in 483 plate appearances; that’s basically the same line Urshela put up last year, though Miranda is the inferior defensive third baseman. Luis Arraez won the batting title last year mostly playing first and DHing, but he can still play second, which could push Jorge Polanco back to shortstop if the Twins feel like taking the defensive hit. Nick Gordon can play all over the diamond, and while Royce Lewis is recovering from a torn ACL, he’ll be back at some point this coming year.

Which brings Farmer into the equation. Minnesota sent Legumina, a 2019 eighth-round pick who profiles as a potential one-inning middle reliever, to Cincinnati to pry Farmer loose. Farmer is basically the midpoint between Kiner-Falefa and Urshela; he’s a capable defensive shortstop, but not a spectacular one. And while he’s a below-average hitter, topping out at a wRC+ of 91 this year in the best season of his career, he’s not an automatic out. In fact, he killed left-handed pitching in 2022 to the tune of a .309/.380/.568 line. Maybe there’s a platoon in the works with Gordon, who had a 125 wRC+ against righties but just a 57 against lefties last year. Or maybe the Twins are freeing up money to make a bigger move, since Farmer stands to be about $3 million cheaper than Urshela this year.

But he’ll cost about twice as much as Newman, a former first-round pick who at age 29 is being displaced by the next generation of Pirates prospects. Oneil Cruz already supplanted Newman this season, and Newman’s hold on second base is likely only temporary with Nick Gonzales approaching major league readiness and Termarr Johnson not too terribly far behind him. Newman had his best offensive season since 2019 this season, hitting .274/.316/.372 in 309 plate appearances. Project that over a full year and that’s an honest-to-goodness average shortstop, for the cost of an unremarkable reliever in Moreta.

The daisy chain of shortstop trades to end last week carries the faint scent of the red paper clip project. The Angels, a team that whatever its other faults does spend money, sent a pitching prospect to Minnesota for one year of a solid infielder. Minnesota, a team with fewer resources but similar ambitions, replaced said infielder by trading a slightly worse pitching prospect for a slightly worse, slightly cheaper shortstop. And so on down the line, until the sequence reached a Pirates team that’s open to trading just about anyone.

None of these four infielders were good enough to be central to their teams’ plans, which made them expendable and not particularly valuable in trade. But neither were they bad enough or expensive enough to get non-tendered, or to tempt their teams to find replacements in a non-tender market that’s shaping up to be pretty uninspiring for middle infielders.

Better to pick up a surefire big league-quality shortstop in a trade. Even if he costs a young pitcher and a little more money. Everyone toss your keys in the bowl — you’re going home with a shortstop, maybe just not the one you came with.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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The Strangermember
5 days ago

Come for the trade analysis, stay for the swinger party jokes.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
5 days ago
Reply to  The Stranger

And vice versa