As 2018 turned into a rebuilding season for the Texas Rangers, officially becoming so after the June draft, Isiah Kiner-Falefa turned into a catcher.
He had been one in the minors, albeit briefly while transitioning from the infield. When he made his MLB debut last season, he did so as an infielder and didn’t catch over his first two months.
As spring training nears, with pitchers and catchers reporting Tuesday, Kiner-Falefa looks like the Rangers’ catcher of the future. Or at least one of them.
Defensive-minded veteran Jeff Mathis will handle the primary catching load this season and is also under contract for 2020, but Kiner-Falefa will see less and less time taking grounders and more and more time behind the plate.
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“It was always a thing I kind of shied away from at that level just because it’s so new at that level,” Kiner-Falefa said. “But, honestly, I feel like I can do it at that level. That was really big for me to understand that and get that experience.
“From the first game, for not catching for two months, to be able to get that win, that was the moment where I was like, ‘I can do this, if I can jump in after not doing it for this long.’”
The Rangers were encouraged by how well he received the ball and was able to help pitchers navigate games in his 35 starts at catcher. They saw him get away from proper footwork at times, but have chalked that up, in part, to fatigue.
Not only was Kiner-Falefa catching more, he was still working each day before games in the infield. He had never played deep into September, as minor-league seasons end around Labor Day, and that contributed to some fatigue.
The Rangers are planning to make sure his workload is concentrated more on catching.
“Right now, whatever they need me to do I’m prepared for,” said Kiner-Falefa, who was voted as the club’s Rookie of the Year. “I’m really trying hard this off-season to focus on catching. Just having one year of experience should help me get a better routine and work at it but not overwork myself.”
Mathis, a 15-year veteran, signed a two-year deal for $8 million early in the off-season to replace Robinson Chirinos, and his addition is an indication that the Rangers will ask their catchers to focus on defense. Few are better than Mathis, who led all MLB catchers in 2018 with 17 defensive runs saved.
Jose Trevino, who made his MLB debut in June, is still considered as one of the top defensive catchers in the minor leagues, and he is likely to open the season at Triple A Nashville even though he missed half of last season at Double A Frisco with a left/non-throwing shoulder injury.
He and Kiner-Falefa will benefit from having Mathis ahead of them.
“The signing of Mathis has proven that we’re committed to a higher level of catching,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I’ve told Jose and Kiner to watch Jeff and how selfless he is and how committed he is to his process of catching.”