Rangers upgrade at catcher in trade for Mitch Garver at the cost of versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa

SURPRISE, Ariz. — The Rangers have always praised Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s versatility, but this is kind of ridiculous. Over four months, he went from shortstop to possible utility guy to the definite starting third baseman.

And then Saturday, they moved him once more: To Minnesota.

The Rangers are not messing around. Chris Young and Jon Daniels are remaking the roster and it’s best not to get caught in the way. Less than 48 hours after baseball’s lockout ended, the offseason’s most active team churned things again, this time to upgrade what had been one of baseball’s least offensive catching units. They grabbed Mitch Garver, who leads all MLB catchers (minimum 1,000 plate appearances) over the last five years in OPS by sending Kiner-Falefa and pitching prospect Ronny Henriquez to the Twins.

Garver, 31, has an .835 OPS since his MLB debut in 2017. He hit 31 homers in 2019 and has averaged a homer every 14.8 at-bats per season the last three years. His biggest issue has been really unfortunate injuries, like the foul ball last year that caused a “groin contusion,” led to a surgical procedure and cost him two months. Over the same three-year period, by the way, the Rangers ranked last at the position in OPS at .597, according to Fangraphs. The Rangers have excelled at framing pitches for strikes, but outsized offense is still more valuable.

“We recognized the value of having [Kiner-Falefa] to play third base,” said Young, the general manager said. “That said, I think assessing the catching situation, the catching market and how we view Mitch Garver in terms of the fit of our team, this [trade] made sense in a lot of ways.”

Said Daniels: “There are only so many guys like that in the game.”

Which is kind of the point. After losing 102 games in a year of finding out answers, Daniels and Young – with the help of more than $500 million in commitments from ownership – set out to raise the bar with every move they made. It was not about simply improving off last year’s record, but to add top-tier talent with each move.

They signed Marcus Semien and Corey Seager to remake the middle of the infield. They chased Clayton Kershaw as hard as they could, but how can you convince the greatest Dodgers pitcher since Sandy Koufax to leave LA. They pivoted quickly to return to talks about Garver, which had actually started just before the lockout. The Rangers moves were so fast and furious in the hours leading up to the lockout, they needed to reassess the situation. Nearly 100 days of a labor freeze gave them plenty of time to do that.

When this season begins on April 8, it’s entirely possible the Rangers will have only two of the 10 starters from the 2021 season opener on the roster. As of Saturday – and at this rate things could change by the start of the week – only 11 of 26 players introduced at last year’s opener are still on the 40-man roster.

All of this was necessary.

Next questions: But didn’t manager Chris Woodward only Friday afternoon proclaim Kiner-Falefa the team’s third baseman with a ringing endorsement? And with Kiner-Falefa gone and Josh Jung out most, if not all, of the season, who in Adrian Beltré’s name is going to play third?

Short answers: Yes. And it’s really not that important.

“We’re constantly trying to improve the club. Sometimes you have to [part with] good people to upgrade the way you want to,” Woodward said. “To do it comes with a price. We were willing to pay it. [Garver] is an offensive juggernaut at catcher.

“[Kiner-Falefa] still has it,” Woodward said of his endorsement. “Isiah was my first call after the lockout ended. He deserved it. He’s been our heart and soul. I wanted him to know how much I value him. And I still do. He’s a good player and a leader. Nothing has changed in my eyes about him. I don’t ever want to bet against him.”

But while Kiner-Falefa won a Gold Glove at third, he has a .670 career OPS. There may be more there offensively. Given Kiner-Falefa’s drive, there probably is. Either way, it’s a full-grade below league-average in offense. Offense rules.

As for third base this year, look, not everything can be fixed in one year. The team’s mantra is to make smart long-range decisions to significantly improve the club. Jung remains the third baseman of the future. Because of it, they aren’t likely to make a serious run at free agent Kris Bryant. They’ll check the bottom of the free agent market, give over-achieving Andy Ibáñez ample opportunity before likely taking an in-season look at one of the guys acquired for Joey Gallo: Josh Smith and Ezequiel Duran, or Davis Wendzel.

At catcher, last year’s co-starters, Jose Trevino and Jonah Heim will battle it out for the backup’s job. Either would be a solid backup. Heim might have the edge because he’s a switch-hitter with power. Prospect Sam Huff, he of the unfathomable raw power, who didn’t catch at all last year because of knee surgery, won’t be guaranteed a trip to the majors as soon as he proves he’s healthy. He’ll have to earn it.

“We’re creating a roster full of competition,” Woodward said. “All these guys have no fear of competition. That’s what we want. That’s what good teams have. These guys just have to perform and things will take care of themselves.”

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