LAKELAND, Fla. — The Yankees tinkered with their shortstop competition Friday, placing Anthony Volpe at the position and using Oswald Peraza at second base, a flip-flop from previous games, when the two top prospects played together.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa has taken a step back from contention — actually, a few dozen steps back.
The Yankees’ 2022 starting shortstop began his new role as a super-utilityman Friday, when he grabbed a recently acquired outfield glove that still is not fully broken in and played center field for six mostly promising innings.
Kiner-Falefa knocked off his nerves early, catching the first two outs of the game, and proceeded to look pretty natural in center — a position he had not played since a Double-A game in 2017.
On a few occasions, though, his inexperience showed.
“I feel like I got tested in every way today for the most part,” Kiner-Falefa said after an 8-7 loss to the Tigers at Publix Field.
Kiner-Falefa proved immediately he could catch the easy outs, retiring Austin Meadows and Jonathan Schoop on routine flyballs to open the game.
Three batters later, when Andre Lipcius singled to right-center with runners on first and second, Kiner-Falefa charged in and to his left, corralled the ball and heaved a strong throw home.
The throw was too late, and it was probably to the wrong base: Nick Maton, who began on first base, moved to third because the throw went home.
Kiner-Falefa said he was happy with his arm, and he believes his decision-making will improve.
“I probably should’ve thrown to third,” said Kiner-Falefa, who also has played second, third and shortstop this spring. “But I was happy to just get an opportunity to throw the ball.”
His next mistake was mental, too.
In the third inning, Detroit’s Colt Keith lofted a bloop into shallow left-center. Volpe, at shortstop, backed up with uncertainty, and Aaron Hicks charged from left field.
Hicks eventually called for it but could not finish what would have been a remarkable, tumbling catch.
Keith ended up with a triple.
“That was probably my ball. I lined up on the wrong side,” said Kiner-Falefa, who said he misread the positioning cards: He should have been shaded to left-center and instead was in right-center. “That was the one time I messed up my alignment. That can’t happen in the real game.”
The box score does not show an error, and Kiner-Falefa thinks more time in center can eliminate the mental miscues.
He said he feels comfortable there, and it’s possible the Yankees will throw him in center in an early regular-season game.
Harrison Bader’s oblique injury will keep him out at least for a few weeks to begin the season, and the Yankees do not want to risk Aaron Judge’s legs by using him every day in center.
Manager Aaron Boone praised Kiner-Falefa’s athleticism and footwork and called Friday a “good start.”
“I think him moving around is something that not only will serve us well, but I think he’s cut out for it,” Boone said of Kiner-Falefa, who is 6-for-25 (.240) with a home run and four steals in the Grapefruit League.
Kiner-Falefa is not finished playing shortstop and should bounce back there Saturday, as the Yankees test whether he can rotate between spots without issue.
But Kiner-Falefa appears to be their third shortstop option right now, with Peraza and Volpe vying for the Opening Day job.
Kiner-Falefa will be fighting with Oswaldo Cabrera for a utility role, though Boone has said he can envision both flexible fielders cracking the roster.
“You see guys like [the Dodgers’] Chris Taylor, Cabrera, [the Red Sox’s] Kiké [Hernandez],” said Kiner-Falefa, who won a Gold Glove at third base and also played catcher while he was with the Rangers. “The good teams had multiple guys like that. It wasn’t just one guy.”
The 27-year-old, who had a rough first season in The Bronx and became used to boos, has embraced his new reality.
If the Yankees do not want him at shortstop, Kiner-Falefa wants to help elsewhere.
“That’s the thing about Izzy since he’s gotten here,” Boone said. “He just wants to win, and he wants to win in pinstripes.”