2014 Season Review: The Spring Training Surprise Who Stuck

The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It happens every year like clockwork. Some seldom-known player shows up to Spring Training, has a strong camp, and fans clamor for him to make the team. He doesn’t, he goes to Triple-A, he performs exactly like he has every other year in his career, and fans forget about him by June. Happens to every team every year. This isn’t something unique to the Yankees. But, every once in a while, that player does stick.

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The Legend of Yangervis Solarte started in early January, when the Yankees signed the then-26-year-old minor league journeyman to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The Tigers were after him as well, but Solarte was put off by their Ian Kinsler pickup because it blocked a potential spot for him. The Yankees flexed their financial muscle and signed him to a nice deal worth $22,000 per month in the minors. That’s big bucks for a minor league deal.

Solarte came to Spring Training and was lumped into the infield competition with guys like Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Zelous Wheeler, and Scott Sizemore. He was a total afterthought. No one knew who he was and his minor league track record wasn’t particularly impressive — .282/.331/.404 (~91 wRC+) in over 1,100 plate appearances at Triple-A with the Rangers from 2012-13 — so there wasn’t much of a reason to get excited. Solarte switch-hit and he could play all over the field, which is great, but a ton of guys in the minors do that.

Then, in camp, Solarte was that guy. That guy who just hit and hit and hit. He played a different position just about everyday — Solarte played five games at second, eleven at short, four at third, and five in left during Grapefruit League play — and just kept hitting. Solarte ended Spring Training with a .410/.452/.615 batting line in 47 plate appearances while facing mostly MLB caliber pitching according to Baseball-Reference’s quality of competition metric. He was the guy. The guy everyone wanted to make the team but was destined for Triple-A.

But then something weird happened: Solarte actually made the team. The Yankees decided enough was enough and it was time to move on from Nunez, who was designated for assignment before Opening Day and traded to the Twins for a Single-A arm. Solarte took Nunez’s roster spot and his uniform number, No. 26. With Brendan Ryan starting the season on the disabled list a back problem, the first five or six weeks of the regular season were essentially a continuation of the Spring Training competition between Solarte and Anna, who also made the club.

Solarte’s first career big league plate appearance was not exactly a garbage time situation — he pinch-hit for Kelly Johnson against the left-handed Kevin Chapman with two men on the base and the Yankees down 2-0 in the seventh inning of the second game of the season. Solarte banged into a 4-6-3 double play to kill the rally and later popped up to end the game in his second plate appearance. It wasn’t the most exciting MLB debut after such a stellar camp, but what can you do. It was two plate appearances and I’m sure he was nervous.

The Solarte Partay began in earnest the next day, when Joe Girardi gave Solarte is first career start (at third base) with the lefty Brett Oberholtzer on the mound. Solarte recorded his first big league hit on a ground ball single back up the middle in his first at-bat then scored his first career run on Carlos Beltran‘s single later in the inning. He doubled to left field in his next at-bat and singled again in his third at-bat, which was nothing more than an infield pop-up the Astros didn’t catch because they’re the Astros:

That was also his first career run batted in. I’m sure he’ll tell his grandkids it was a screaming line drive into the gap but they won’t believe him. This is the internet age and they’ll pull up the video on their phones or whatever the hell the kids carry in the future.

Anyway, the 3-for-3 showing earned Solarte another start the next day. Two doubles in that game earned him another start the next day. Two singles in that game kept him in the lineup the next day. And on and on it went. Solarte went 11-for-22 in his first six starts and 19-for-49 (.388) in his first 14 starts. He also started an around-the-horn triple play in the middle of April, in his 16th career game:

Even if he hadn’t come out of the gate so strong, Solarte would have stayed in the starting lineup anyway because Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury forced Johnson to play first base. Solarte took advantage of the opportunity and just kept hitting. Through April he had a .303/.404/.461 (147 wRC+) batting line and through May he had a .288/.361/.441 (126 wRC+) batting line. He hit his first career homerun off Grant Balfour in the same game as the triple play.

Of course, there were slumps along the way. Slumps that made you think the Solarte Partay was over and he was going back to being a minor league journeyman. There was the 2-for-19 (.105) in late-April, the 1-for-14 (.071) in mid-May, and the 2-for-24 (.083) in late-May. Solarte rebounded well those times, but his June slump effectively ended his time in pinstripes. He went 10-for-61 (.164) in June, including an ugly 0-for-28 skid that spanned nine team games.

Solarte’s season batting line sat at a still respectable .263/.345/.404 (112 wRC+) after the 0-for-28, though the blush was off the rose and he was trending in the wrong direction. The Yankees shipped him to Triple-A Scranton on July 3rd — the move cleared a 25-man roster spot for Wheeler — hoping he would find his strike in the minors. Solarte went 12-for-20 (.600) with three doubles in five games with the RailRiders before being recalled on July 10th, when Beltran was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After appearing in just four more games with the Yankees — he went 1-for-10 in those four games — Solarte was traded to the Padres with Single-A pitching prospect Rafael DePaula for Chase Headley on July 22nd. The Yankees got what they could out of him then cashed in their chip for a third base upgrade. Solarte finished his time in pinstripes with a .254/.337/.381 (104 wRC+) line with six homers, 30 walks, and 34 strikeouts in 289 plate appearances. He played adequate defense at mostly third base but also saw time time at second and at short.

Following the trade to San Diego, Solarte hit .267/.336/.355 (101 wRC+) with four homers, 23 walks, and 24 strikeouts in 246 plate appearances while splitting his time between second, short, third, and left field. An oblique injury hampering him late-August. Ultimately, his numbers with the Yankees and his numbers with the Padres look very similar. Headley was a big boost at third base both at the plate and in the field. I’m guessing both sides were happy with the trade.

* * *

Solarte was found money for the Yankees. They can talk all they want about how they thought he could be a useful player when they signed him, but I’m guessing that if you gave the team’s decision-makers and pro scouts a truth serum, they’d tell you they didn’t expect him to be a better than league-average hitter for nearly 300 plate appearances. They milked Solarte for all they could then used him to acquire a legitimate upgrade before his stock took a nose dive.

It’s very rare that the guy in Spring Training turns out to be The Guy like Solarte. He has some skills, most notably versatility and a good approach to go along with bat-to-ball ability from  both sides of the plate, and he capitalized on every opportunity the Yankees gave him early in the season. Solarte was a huge lift when the team had question marks all around the infield and a nice trade chip when something better came along. He was right guy at the right time on more than one occasion in 2014.

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Yankees acquire Chase Headley for Yangervis Solarte, Rafael DePaula

Beard's gotta go, Chase. (Denis Poroy/Getty)
Beard’s gotta go, Chase. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

Finally, some help for the infield. The Yankees have acquired third baseman Chase Headley and cash from the Padres for utility man Yangervis Solarte and minor league pitching prospect Rafael DePaula, both teams announced. Jack Curry and Jon Heyman first reported the news and Chad Jennings says the Yankees hope he will be in town in time for tonight’s game. (The Padres are in Chicago.)

Headley, 30, is owed approximately $4.2M through the end of the season, and Heyman says the Yankees will receive about $1M from San Diego. Headley is due to become a free agent after the winter and because he was acquired at midseason, the team will not be able to make him a qualifying offer to recoup a draft pick in the offseason. This is a pure rental, obviously, though things could always go so well that they re-sign him.

Through 77 games and 307 plate appearances this year, the switch-hitting Headley is hitting .229/.296/.355 (88 wRC+) with seven homers and 12 doubles. He was dealing with some back issues a few weeks ago and has hit .298/.330/.405 (110 wRC+) in 21 games since receiving an epidural. As with all Padres’ position players, the hope is Headley will perform better away from spacious Petco Park. Here’s what I wrote in our recent Scouting The Market Post:

Petco Park is a notorious pitcher’s park, even after the walls were brought in last season. Headley is a career .286/.360/.444 (118 wRC+) hitter on the road (.243/.331/.371 (107 wRC+) at home), including a 154 wRC+ away from Petco Park in 2012 (97 wRC+ on the road from 2013-14). If the Yankees were to acquire Headley, he would be moving from one of the worst hitting parks in the game to one of the best. It would be damn near impossible for his numbers not to improve.

Headley’s offensive numbers might not improve, he might just stink as a hitter now, but there is no doubt he will improve New York’s dreadful infield defense. He has consistently graded out as above-average defender at third base and will be the team’s best hot corner gloveman since peak Alex Rodriguez. It would be awesome if Headley hits like he did in 2012 (145 wRC+), but being nothing more than a league-average bat with his defense would be a gigantic upgrade for the Yankees.

In exchange for Headley, the Yankees gave up a spare part in Solarte and a secondary pitching prospect. The team signed Solarte as a minor league free agent over the winter and he was awesome for the first two months of the season, but his production slipped in recent weeks and he was eventually shipped to the minors. The 27-year-old has hit .254/.337/.381 (100 wRC+) in 289 plate appearances this year. Hopefully he gets a chance to play everyday in San Diego. The Solarte Partay was a blast while it lasted.

DePaula, 23, has a 4.15 ERA (3.34 FIP) in 89 innings for High-A Tampa this season. I ranked him as the team’s 20th best prospect before the draft, mostly because of his high-end fastball velocity and promising slider. There are still questions about whether he is anything more than a reliever long-term. The Yankee signed DePaula for $500k out of Dominican Republic in 2010 but he did not make his pro debut until 2012 due to visa issues. He was suspended one year before signing for falsifying his identity.

It’s worth noting the Blue Jays were said to be pursuing Headley as well, so the Yankees essentially took him away from a division rival and direct competitor for a postseason spot. The Bombers have now added two rentals in Headley and Brandon McCarthy, and all they’ve given up is a good but not great pitching prospect and two players signed off the scrap heap. I mean, they turned Solarte and Vidal Nuno into half-seasons of Headley and McCarthy. That’s pretty awesome. DePaula, like most Single-A pitching prospects, was as tradeable as it gets. These moves might be not enough to put the Yankees over the top — they still need rotation help and a right fielder — but they were upgrades at minimal cost.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Infielders

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We started yesterday with the catchers, now let’s move on to the infielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mark Teixeira — Grade B (A+ for Foul Territory)

There were a lot of questions about the infield coming into the season in general, but especially Teixeira. The Yankees’ first baseman missed almost all of last season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist that eventually required surgery, and wrist surgery can be very problematic even after the player has been cleared to play. Remember, Teixeira started Spring Training late and has still felt soreness during the season. It has caused him to miss a game or two here and there. (His only DL stint was hamstring related.)

Despite that, Teixeira has been the team’s most consistent and productive power hitter this summer, coming into the All-Star break with a .241/.341/.464 (120 wRC+) batting line with a team-leading 17 homers. His power output (.222 ISO) is right in line with his last full healthy season (.224 ISO in 2012), which is definitely encouraging after the wrist surgery. Most importantly, he’s done most of his damage against right-handed pitchers (130 wRC+), who used to give him the most trouble. Is he Teixeira of old? No, of course not. That guy isn’t coming back. But he’s returned to his pre-surgery ways and been a much-needed force in the middle of the lineup.

Weirdly enough, the biggest issue for Teixeira this season has been his defense. He’s already committed six errors this season, his most since 2004, and while errors are not the best way to evaluate defense, most of them were plays we’re used to seeing Teixeira make. I think his scooping at first has been fine. It’s the hard-hit balls he used to turn into outs that are now eating him up. I think it’s a combination of rust from the lost 2013 season and a decline in his skills. Either way, Teixeira has definitely been a positive for the Yankees this year, especially when you consider he’s coming off major surgery.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian Roberts — Grade C

There was no way the Yankees were not going to have a massive drop off in production at second base this year. Robinson Cano was the best player at the position last year and has been for several years running, so by definition he is irreplaceable. Roberts was not exactly a popular choice as Cano’s replacement given his long injury history and the fact that he wasn’t all that productive even when healthy ways. The Yankees love veterans though, especially AL East proven guys.

Roberts has remained remarkably healthy so far this year — he missed a handful of games with a back issue in April, but that’s it — while being more than a total zero at the plate. His .241/.306/.376 (87 wRC+) batting line comes with the occasional homer (five), the occasional stolen bases (seven), the occasional walk (8.4%), and always a very long at-bat (4.04 pitches per plate appearance). Roberts has been fine defensively at second if not an asset. He’s a perfectly capable stopgap and No. 9 hitter who has been asked to bear more responsibility. Will Roberts hit a wall later in the year after not playing a full season since 2009? I have a hard time thinking his second half will be better than his first, honestly.

Derek Jeter — Grade C

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Like Teixeira, Jeter was coming off a major injury. He missed just about all of last season with a series of leg problems, including a twice-fractured ankle. Add in the fact that he is a 39-year-old shortstop — a demographic that is not well-represented throughout history — and things were definitely stacked against the Cap’n coming into 2014.

Jeter’s season has been underwhelming statistically but I don’t it’s worst case scenario stuff. Like I said, a 39-year-old shortstop coming off a major leg injury could have been really, really ugly. Jeter is hitting .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+) overall, so his power is non-existent, but he does rank third among qualified AL shortstops in OBP and is only five points away from leading. Is it vintage Jeter? Absolutely not. But relative to the league average shortstop (.308 OBP and 87 wRC+), he’s been passable.

Defensive is another matter. Jeter’s glovework has never been good and at this point he’s barely mobile. The old “he makes the plays on the balls he gets to” rhetoric doesn’t even apply anymore. He’s booted more grounders and made more offline throws this season than I can ever remember. Inside Edge data says he has converted only 46.2% of “likely” plays into outs, which are defined as plays that would be make 60-90% of the time on average. He hasn’t make anything tougher than an “even” play (40-60%) either. It’s been ugly.

The total package, offense plus defense, has not been good for the Yankees this year. At the same time, I’m generously giving Jeter a C instead of a D or F because he has played better than I expected coming off the ankle injury at his age. Maybe I’m just a giant homer. The Cap’n has not been good this season though, certainly not by his standards, but it could have been much worse given everything that happened last year.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Kelly Johnson — Grade D

The Yankees have put Johnson in a tough spot for most of the year — playing once or twice a week, usually at an unfamiliar position like first or third base — but, at the same time, he knew what he was walking into when he signed as a free agent over the winter. He has hit .214/.299/.380 (87 wRC+) with six homers in 211 plate appearances, including a disappointing 83 wRC+ against righties and an even more disappointing 87 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium. Five of his six long balls have come in the Bronx.

Johnson’s defense has been a problem, though again, he has mostly played out of position — he came into the season with only 18 innings at first base and 118 innings at third base. He has spent 199.2 innings at first and 255.1 innings at third this year, committing nine total errors and not looking particularly graceful either. Johnson was a shrewd signing and a wonderful fit for the roster on paper — left-handed hitter with power who can play the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field — but it just hasn’t worked out halfway through the season.

Yangervis Solarte — Grade B

Man those first eight or so weeks were fun, weren’t they? I like to think I’m well-versed in the minor leagues but even I had not heard of Solarte before the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent over the winter. It goes without saying that no one expected to take over as the starting third baseman for the first eight weeks of the season, during which he hit .299/.368/.458 (128 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. Solarte was a godsend for a beleaguered offense.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Solarte Partay came to crashing halt after that, unfortunately. He has hit .111/.238/.130 (10 wRC+!) in 63 plate appearances since, earning him a demotion to Triple-A Scranton. Yangervis has owns a .255/.338/.382 (101 wRC+) line in 288 trips to the plate overall and holy crap, no one expected that. Even if he never hits again, those first eight weeks made the signing more than worth it. That’s even considering Solarte’s occasionally shaky defense. He was a great story and a tremendously productive player into early-June. His days as a useful MLB player may have already come to an end, but boy did Solarte contribute in a big way when given an opportunity early this season.

Brendan Ryan — Grade C

Giving Ryan two years plus a player option this past offseason definitely flies under the radar as a lolwtf offseason move. I mean, yeah, I get it. Jeter was a major question mark, but geez. Ryan spent the first five weeks of the season on the disabled list with a back injury, and he’s nothing more than a no-bat (.235/.273/.255, 43 wRC+ in 55 PA), good but no longer elite glove infielder who plays maybe once a week. It’s far from the best use of the roster spot, but the Yankees are stuck with him. It’s just a weird fit. Even weirder are all those times Ryan played first base while Jeter manned short. He’s fine as the 24th man on the roster. Just a pricey and not at all versatile (in terms of bringing different things to the table) insurance policy for Jeter in his final season.

Zelous Wheeler, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore — incomplete

These three guys have combined for 61 total plate appearances — Anna has the most at 25 — and have hit a combined .232/.246/.438. Most of the power production comes from Wheeler, who has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances. He is currently with the team in that revolving door 25th man spot while Sizemore is stashed in Triple-A awaiting an injury. Anna has already been designated for assignment (to make room on the roster for Zelous) and claimed off waivers from the Pirates. I wonder how many more guys will cycle through this role in the second half.

* * *

There were some serious concerns about the infield coming into the season. Teixeira and Jeter were huge question marks following their injuries and the same was true of Roberts given his history. Johnson was the sure thing on the infield at the start of camp. The defense has been hideous — Yankees’ pitchers have a .258 BABIP on ground balls, the seventh highest in baseball (league average is .244), and even more grounders would sneak through for hits if not for the club’s aggressive shifting — and that was fairly predictable.

The infield has, by and large, been more productive than I expected, mostly because Solarte was awesome for a while and Teixeira has shown no lingering issues with the wrist when it comes to raw production. Roberts is the new Lyle Overbay — the best of all the bad players and therefore giving off the appearance of being good — and Jeter’s Jeter. He’s untouchable. The Yankees have some internal options who may improve the infield, namely Triple-A Scranton second baseman Rob Refsnyder, but either way  it’s clear they could use some help in the second half. Beefing up third base is an obvious upgrade area.

Yankees place Beltran on 7-day concussion DL, recall Solarte

The Yankees have placed Carlos Beltran on the seven-day concussion disabled list and recalled Yangervis Solarte from Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. Beltran suffered two small facial fractures during a fluke batting practice accident yesterday — he hit a ball off the cage and it ricocheted into his face. He will be eligible to return after the All-Star break.

Solarte, 27, was sent down last week and went 12-for-20 (.600) with three doubles and a triple in five games for the RailRiders. It would be totally awesome if that got him going and he comes back to hit like he did earlier in the season. Beltran has not played since Sunday due to a  minor knee/hamstring problem, and he also missed about a month due to the bone spur in his elbow earlier this year. The 37-year-old is hitting .216/.271/.401 (79 wRC+) with nine homers in 61 games this season.

Solarte expanding the zone during recent slump

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up a nine-game road trip through two time zones and return home this week with five wins in the bank. It was a good trip, not a great trip. Stealing one of those last two games from the Athletics would have been awesome, but they are the best team in baseball. What are you going to do? Considering the injury-riddled rotation and mostly sputtering offense, winning five of nine works fine for me.

The road trip was not at all good for infielder Yangervis Solarte, who had four total hits in the nine games. All four came in back-to-back games in Kansas City. Solarte went hitless in his final 19 at-bats on the trip, though his recent slump extends further back than that — over the last calendar month he’s hitting only .208/.269/.313 (60 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances. That’s just bad. That’s what you’d expect from … well, a journeyman infielder who signed a minor league contract.

Despite the slump, Solarte is still hitting .274/.347/.420 (113 wRC+) on the season, which is a reminder of just how excellent he was a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone realistically thought he could maintain the 144 wRC+ he posted through April or even the 131 wRC+ he posted through May. That’s Josh Donaldson/Hanley Ramirez production. I’ll be more than thrilled if Solarte manages to produce at a 113 wRC+ clip from here on out.

Sort through his day-by-day graphs page on FanGraphs and you can see Solarte’s gradual return to Earth pretty clearly. The AVG, OBP, SLG, BABIP, and wOBA graphs are all moving in the wrong direction, the walk rate slightly less so. The strikeout, K/BB, and ISO graphs show little change. They’ve held steady even through this slump and that’s encouraging. The one graph that stood out to me was the batted balls. Check it out:

Solarte Batted Balls

The green line is ground balls, the blue is fly balls, and the red is line drives. Solarte’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been moving in opposite directions, which is sorta weird because his ISO has held steady. Usually when a hitter stops hitting the ball in the air, he stops hitting for extra bases. Maybe it’s just a small sample thing. Solarte isn’t fast and won’t beat out many infield singles (he has three infield hits all season, including this one), so it makes sense that the increase in ground balls has led to decreased production overall.

One thing that has impressed me about Solarte — really more than anything — is his approach. His 11.6% strikeout rate is much better than the league average (20.3%) and his 9.6% walk rate is a touch better than average (8.0%) as well. He has swung at only 27.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, a tick below the 29.3% average. Has that changed at all during the slump? Here are Solarte’s plate discipline stats broken down into ten-game chunks because ten is a nice round number:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Games 1-10 27.1% 59.2% 78.3% 95.2% 45.5%
Games 11-20 34.4% 56.3% 74.2% 93.3% 47.1%
Games 21-30 21.8% 66.7% 73.7% 95.7% 44.2%
Games 31-40 20.9% 52.2% 66.7% 97.2% 44.5%
Games 41-50 29.3% 53.3% 82.4% 95.0% 56.4%
Games 51-62 33.7% 52.3% 83.9% 97.8% 48.9%

Solarte has gradually swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone as the season has progressed, and lately he’s offered at more pitches out of the zone as well. That’s not really a good combination. Swing at strikes and lay off balls is a pretty good rule of thumb. Furthermore, Solarte has not only swung at more pitches out of the zone these last 22 games, but he’s made more contact with those pitches as well. Unless you’re a total freak like Vlad Guerrero, it’s really tough to made hard contact with a pitch out of the zone. Usually the hitter is reaching and either grounding out weakly or popping the ball up.

As Joe wrote two weeks ago, it is very rare for a player to make his MLB debut at age 26 and stick around for a few years. At least rare among non-Cuban players. Dan Uggla and David Eckstein have both done it, and Solarte is more Eckstein than Uggla in terms of his high-contact, low-power playing style. Every little slump makes you wonder if this is the end — for what it’s worth, Solarte has hit much better at Yankee Stadium, so coming back home this week could help jump start his bat — but Solarte has rebounded each previous time. A little less hacking at pitchers’ pitches would help get him back in line this time. That might not be his only problem right now, but it is part of it.