Prior to this spring, Yangervis Solarte was a 27-year-old career minor league who'd OPS'd a pedestrian .735 over two seasons and over 1,100 plate appearances at Round Rock, the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate in the infamously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. When the Yankees signed him as a free agent in January, there wasn't much expectation that he'd fight his way onto the Opening Day roster and become a catalyst for the team's April success. It didn't take long for the Venezuelan-born infielder to become known for something other than his first name. In the exhibition season, he slugged his way to a ridiculous .429/.489/.571 triple slash, forcing the Yankees to make a move they probably didn't anticipate making - DFAing and eventually trading Eduardo Nunez, the guy they once held up a Cliff Lee deal over. When the regular season started, Solarte didn't stop. Finding himself suddenly in an everyday role during Mark Teixeira's early DL trip, he was boasting an OPS of 1.007 as of April 18th while playing admirable defense at third, which wasn't even his primary position throughout the minors.
Over the past few days, though, Solarte's carriage has started to look a little too much like a pumpkin. As of Tuesday night, he was hitless in his last fourteen at bats and had reached base just once since Friday night's game in Tampa Bay. His OPS dropped by .166 over three games, and last night at Fenway, for the first time since the second game of the season, he was not in the starting lineup. Solarte's stumble is a small sample, for sure, as is everything on his major league ledger, but given his lackluster pedigree, it's easy to wonder whether this week is just a hiccup or a regression to a replacement-level-or-worse norm.
Solarte wasn't going to win a batting title this year or post a four-digit OPS or a wRC+ over 150 as he'd done through his first sixteen games. It's not fair to write him off entirely, as players do get better even in their late twenties. The real question is whether Solarte can live up to the not-so-lofty standard of being better than Nunez, the player he essentially replaced, or to the slightly higher one of becoming a league-average player for the Yankees at a position of serious need. While his out-of-the-gate surge was fueled largely by an unsustainable BABIP that's still hovering around .350. Despite the 0 for 14, there have been some hopeful signs that Solarte isn't entirely a fluke.
Solarte's plate discipline this year has been impressive - and totally unexpected given his minor league history. After managing a walk rate slightly under seven percent during his two seasons in the PCL, Solarte's drawn eight bases-on-balls in 75 plate appearances in the majors so far, good enough for a 10.7 percent rate that's in the top third of MLB hitters. He's chased only a respectable 28.7 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, and his stringing strike rate of six percent is 40th best out of 199 qualifiers. In addition to his improved discipline, Solarte's shown good plate coverage, too, sporting a contact rate of 87.1 percent, good enough for 35th best in baseball.
The Yankees aren't strangers to hot starts from unlikely sources that fizzle out into absolutely nothing. Last year Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner carried an injury-ravaged roster in April...but then Hafner got Humblerized and Wells descended steadily into disaster (and still played pretty much every day!). David Adams was actually hitting .300 through his first ten games before ending up at .193. Going back a little farther, not-quite Yankee legends like Shelley Duncan, Shane Spencer, and Kevin Maas are living monuments to the fact that a strong beginning does not a career make. With all that in mind, it's hard to blame anyone who's less than confident in Solarte's prospects for continued success.
We'll know before long whether Solarte will be remembered as "that guy with the funny name" or as a key contributor to the 2014 Yankees. Even as he faces the first downturn of his short major league career the latter still remains a good possibility. No, he won't be an All-Star - probably not even an above-average player - but as the Yankees learned the hard way in 2013, there's value in "not that bad" especially as their infield remains paper thin and comprised mostly of guys in their mid and late thirties. If nothing else, Solarte's already scored big in the all-important made-up stat of WAN (wins above Nunez).