Isiah Kiner-Falefa is, and always has been, a solid role player. Isiah Kiner-Falefa is not, and never has been, a starting center fielder.
When the Yankees chose to tender him a contract early in the offseason, putting themselves on the hook for $6 million in 2023, it seemed likely that they A) might still trade him before Opening Day after letting one of their kids win the shortstop job, and B) wouldn't let his salary hinder them, considering they clearly preferred to deemphasize his role.
Welp. So much for that. Kiner-Falefa made the Opening Day roster at a position he'd been entirely unfamiliar with prior to March, and while his transformation has involved a valiant effort (he's clearly trying), the bat still isn't there.
Kiner-Falefa would be beloved in New York if he were the last man on the bench, called on in a pinch to put bat on ball or bunt for a hit. If he were Luis Sojo, you'd love him. Unfortunately, he draws regular starts and costs the same as folk hero Matt Carpenter, who would look pretty good in the DH role right about now in the wake of Giancarlo Stanton's absence.
Yankees would look better with Matt Carpenter instead of Isiah Kiner-Falefa
Tendering IKF a contract doesn't rank in the bottom 10 Brian Cashman gaffes of the past two years, which says more about the team's leadership than the player. Still, their immediate willingness to commit $6 million to a marginal player, while not even considering running it back with Carpenter for $6.5 million after he saved their bench in 2022 speaks volumes.
Carpenter cannot play center. That's a pretty significant knock against him, considering the current team is without Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader and remains in dire straits. That said, without Kiner-Falefa, their infield reps could still be nicely split between Oswald Peraza, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres and Oswaldo Cabrera. Would Estevan Florial be performing noticeably worse in center than Kiner-Falefa? Both are defense-first options, but one played the position before spring training 2023.
Carpenter's left-handed bat, and most importantly his power, would represent a gigantic step toward diversifying this dead-in-the-water lineup (and bench). Somehow, some way, yet again, the $278 million Yankees forgot about left-handed bats and forgot about building depth. Aaron Judge's extension went a long way towards preventing that. So did the ill-fated Josh Donaldson monetary absorption from last winter, when the Yankees swallowed up the Twins' biggest albatross like Kirby and were immediately remade in his image.
Even if Carpenter can't replicate his magical 2022 season (spoiler alert: he can't), there's more value in his bat than there is in Kiner-Falefa's best quality, which is playing many positions decently while contributing below-average offense. There are many IKFs in the Yankees' system. There are no Matt Carpenters, and the bench/lineup is bereft without him.
There was no way the Yankees were paying Carpenter $6.5 million late in the game -- but that's their own fault for paying it early in the game to the wrong target.