The New York Yankees faced this 2014 season with an infield shrouded in uncertainty. How much production could be expected from the oft-injured Mark Teixeira? Derek Jeter, if he stays healthy, has set the bar high in his 20th and last major league season. But nobody expects the soon-to-be 40 year old captain to play every day. The hole at second base left by Robinson Cano was never adequately filled, and third base has been an enigma, with or without Alex Rodriguez.
Such an unsettling scenario had me wondering if Yankee manager Joe Girardi had perhaps reached out to Pope Francis for some divine intervention. That’s because the skipper would cross paths this spring with a young man of humble achievements who was only hoping for a fresh start and a legitimate shot to display his talent. Now, I don’t know if the new Pope can provide a requested solution to the political crisis in Venezuela. But the arrival of Yangervis Solarte, who hails from that baseball-crazed republic, could be best described as pennies from heaven.
A career minor league player who had been released by two major league organizations, Yangervis (YAWN-gurr-veess) Solarte was an obscure free agent when he signed a low risk deal with the Yankees last January that included an invitation to spring camp. New York General Manager Brian Cashman was thinking more about depth on the farm when he inked Solarte, but the 26year-old native of Valencia, Venezuela had other ideas. A switch-hitting infielder, Solarte led Yankee hitters in Tampa with a .429 average, and was versatile enough to beat out Eduardo Nunez for the 25th spot on the roster.
A true rookie who had never played in a regular season major league game, Solarte worked his way into the lineup by proving that he could continue to hit and make plays with the big boys.
“He’s been unbelievable,” notes Girardi. “No matter where we play (Solarte), he’s performed at a high level.”
Solarte’s best position is probably second base, and he’s split time there with veteran Brian Roberts. But when Teixeira went on the shelf for three weeks with hamstring issues, Kelly Johnson would get some starts at first base. That opened up what would become a new home for Solarte at third, the hot corner where the Yankees had few job candidates. While the late-blooming journeyman lacks polish on defense, he shows flashes of brilliance with a strong arm, quick feet and good range. Earlier last month, Solarte even turned a hot smash by Sean Rodriguez of the Tampa Bay Rays into a classic 5-4-3 triple play. The nephew of former big league outfielder Roger Cedeno, the hard-working Solarte also displays amazing instincts for the game, which is helpful when the Yankees employ their frequent defensive shifts against opposing teams.
On offense, Solarte continues to raise eyebrows. Only a few days ago, he led the American League in hitting while sporting a .336/.414/.521 slash line. He leads the Yankees in RBI and his second to Jacoby Ellsbury in doubles and walks. Solarte has also impressed with his ability to put the ball in play, making contact on 97 percent of pitches he has attempted hit, even though he practically swings out of his shoes.
Solarte is an interesting kid who is both high-strung and sometimes emotional. After eight years of bus rides and broken promises of being promoted to the show, there is still some bitterness about being “misled” as he puts it, by the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. So, when the Yankees finally came calling, Solarte was a bit skeptical about the circumstances.
“I was concerned because this team is known for its high quality players,” he reveals. “But when I saw that they lost some players, I became interested.”
Now that he has matured and gained some confidence, “Solo,” as he is called by teammates, is pull of vigor and high energy. His home run trot is more like a sprint from base to base. Hell, he even hustles down the line when awarded a base on balls. His other visible trademark is the giant wad of gum in his cheek, a la Terry Francona, the Cleveland Indian’s high-profile boss. Still, it’s easy to see that the guy with the unique first name has not quite let the success sink in.
“This is incredible for me,” admits Solarte, his English a work in progress. “I don’t want to wake up.”
Top Yankees talent evaluators will tell you Solarte has been on their radar since 2011. But despite the low-dollar investment, GM Cashman was reluctant to pull the trigger. Maybe reality struck when the absence of Cano and A-Rod finally hit home. And if you are a religious Yankees fan like a couple of my friends, you’re thinking the South American Pope has sent an unlikely messenger of renewed prosperity.
Whatever the reason, Yangervis Solarte has been a blessing for the Bronx Bombers.