Solarte quickly making name for himself
Yankees third baseman off to torrid start at plate in rookie season
NEW YORK -- John Gibbons leaned back into a folding chair at the front of the Rogers Centre news conference room, ready to be peppered with questions about the two newcomers who had just led the Yankees to an early April victory over his Blue Jays.
Sure, Masahiro Tanaka looked like "the real deal," the Toronto manager said. But Gibbons was more curious about Yangervis Solarte, the switch-hitter who had just blasted a pair of long doubles and collected three RBIs that evening.
"We don't know much about the young hitter, so I tip my hat to him," Gibbons said. "I don't know where he came from, but he's a pretty good little player."
Solarte, a 26-year-old infielder from Venezuela, has been producing similar reactions throughout the American League. A non-roster invitee to Spring Training, Solarte forced his way onto the team with a torrid exhibition stat line, and he has kept it up through his first month in the Majors.
"This is incredible for me. I don't want to wake up," said Solarte, who is tied for fifth in the AL with a .328 (20-for-61) average. "I want to keep working hard and doing what I'm doing right now."
A nine at-bat hitless skid has dipped Solarte's batting average from the high .300s, but he remains tied for third in the AL with seven doubles, seventh with a .414 OBP and has hit safely in 12 of 18 games. Not bad for someone who wasn't even on the team's first charter flight of the year.
Solarte was told not to pack any of his belongings as the Yanks' closed-door arguments went down to the last day of camp, but when New York opened the season in Houston, Solarte was there. He quickly shed his spring No. 89 for a more big league No. 26 -- vacated by Eduardo Nunez, who was jettisoned from the roster in favor of Solarte.
"He's certainly playing above our expectations, and we'll ride that as long as we can," general manager Brian Cashman said. "Maybe he becomes a player that moves into a new category, but you have to give it time. We're certainly happy and pleasantly surprised by what he's provided."
It took nine years for Solarte to get that chance; seven in the Twins' Minor League organization, and the last two years stashed at Triple-A Round Rock in the Rangers' system, where he had been overshadowed by top prospects like Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt.
"I was told that I was going to be brought up to the Majors, but it never happened. I feel they kind of misled me," Solarte said through an interpreter.
Solarte was frustrated -- he said that he had even looked into an Arlington apartment rental last September -- but the Yankees were watching from afar. When they summoned their scouts, decision-makers and number-crunchers to New York for a roundtable discussion in late October, assistant general manager Billy Eppler said that Solarte's name came up numerous times.
According to Eppler, scout Jay Darnell spoke up in favor of pursuing Solarte. So did Don Wakamatsu, who is now the Royals' bench coach, as well as scout David Keith. Michael Fishman, the team's director of quantitative analysis, also saw Solarte's numbers pop in his data searches.
"It just made sense," Eppler said. "When those kinds of departments tend to mesh, it points us in the direction a little bit more aggressively. ... We gravitated toward the switch-hitting aspect, the flexibility aspect, the age relative to most of the guys who hit Minor League free agency. He puts the ball in play, he manages the strike zone well. Those things attracted us to him."
The Yankees had company in pursuit of Solarte, who competed for a Minor League batting title in 2011 and batted .276 with 12 homers and 75 RBIs last season. Solarte said that he fielded calls from 13 clubs over the winter, but the Yanks were persistent.
"I had a lot of teams that were interested in me, but even before the World Series ended, the Yankees were one of the teams that were after me," Solarte said.
Robinson Cano's big contract with the Mariners, Alex Rodriguez's season-long suspension and injury questions with Derek Jeter all were factors that Solarte considered before signing a Minor League deal with New York.
"In the beginning, I was concerned, because this team always has high-quality players," Solarte said. "I didn't know if I was going to get to play, but when I saw that they lost some players, I grew more interested."
Eppler said that the Yanks have been compiling evaluations on Solarte dating back to his Twins days, just in case.
"It's not like he just hit our database," Eppler said. "These guys that are on these Minor League deals tend to gravitate to places where there might be the best opportunity. You look back a little bit into our infield; 2011, 2012, there wasn't a lot of opportunity.
"Some guys would shy away. But I think now this year with the departure of Cano and Alex's situation, it created some more opportunity in our infield. We were able to fish out of a bigger pond, so to speak, that brought us to him."
Solarte may have been forced to wait until now for a big league call, but he had a wealth of experience to draw upon. Solarte's uncle is former big league outfielder Roger Cedeno. According to Solarte, Cedeno often reminds him to keep a positive attitude.
"I take things way too seriously," Solarte said. "He says, 'Don't do that, there's a lot of games ahead. You've got to take things one game at a time.' In the last three years, I've taken that to heart and it has really changed my career."
"Sometimes you need some time to mature," Cedeno said. "I think he puts a lot of pressure on himself. He was so hungry to make it to the big leagues. Now he finally made it. I'm impressed the way he reacts. Nobody knows how somebody is going to react, but I've been very impressed, because he looks so mature."
Cedeno said that watching Solarte provides a window into what his family must have felt when Cedeno started his professional career, signing with the Dodgers as a 17-year-old in 1991. Solarte was only about 4 years old then, but he already had taken to the game.
"I remember my mother was so mad at him, because he was breaking everything in the house with a baseball," Cedeno said, laughing.
Mark Teixeira's return on Sunday restored the Yankees' infield to full health, but manager Joe Girardi said that he will continue to find opportunities for Solarte. They have been using Solarte at second base and third base, and he could also see time at shortstop or in left field.
It remains to be seen if Solarte's story is just April sizzle or something more, but Solarte's consistency is converting skeptics into believers. He is taking this long-awaited chance and making the most of it.
"There are late bloomers," Girardi said. "It's a short sample, I understand that, but it seems like the kid has an idea of what he's doing. Sometimes you wonder how a guy doesn't get an opportunity."