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Q: How for real is Yangervis Solarte?
Tim Clark, South Boston, Va.
BA:It’s fair to say that Solarte has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the first quarter of the 2014 season. On a Yankees team in need of infield help, Solarte is hitting .312/.384/.493 while playing third base, second base and even a little shortstop.
To say that this is unexpected is an understatement. Solarte has gone through minor league free agency three times. On three occasions, the team that had him could have kept him around by simply adding him to the 40-man roster, but on all three occasions, he was allowed to hit free agency.
So why was Solarte allowed to walk on multiple occasions? It’s partly due to injuries and partly due to his defensive issues.
Thanks to a variety of ailments, Solarte had topped 400 at-bats only once in six pro seasons when he reached minor league free agency as a 23-year-old. He was coming off of a .329/.367/.466 season at Double-A New Britain in the Twins system, but that year could have been explained away as a blip in a rather unspectacular stint with the Twins. He was notable enough that Matt Eddy highlighted him as a minor league free agent with upside after the 2011 season.
The Rangers snapped him up, sent him to Triple-A Round Rock and watched him post solid but unspectacular numbers in 2012. Brought back by the Rangers in another round of minor league free agency, he did much of the same in 2013.
To the Yankees’ credit, they believed in something they saw in Solarte, brought him to spring training, then made the difficult decision to jettison Eduardo Nunez, a former top prospect, to keep Solarte. In the circular world that is baseball, Nunez ended up with the Twins after the Yankees designated him for assignment. Nunez now fills the utility role Solarte may have held down if he had been added to the Twins 40-man roster in 2012.
Solarte has been helped by playing third base more than second, where his lack of lateral mobility limits him. He’s a line-drive hitter who already has hit five home runs.
Can Solarte keep this up? It’s very doubtful. Solarte has been healthy long enough for us to have a reasonable idea of what kind of player he is now. He’ll turn 27 in July, so he’s unlikely to have taken a significant step forward offensively from what he’s shown with the Rangers in 2012 and 2013. Last year, he ranked 71st among 83 Pacific Coast League qualifiers in weighted runs created, a stat that tries to account for the differences in park effects. The year before he ranked 62nd out of 88 PCL qualifiers in wRC.
It’s worth remembering that at this time in 2012, Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair was hitting .323/.422/.637. He hit .225 the rest of the season and has not played in the big leagues since.
Because he’s a switch-hitter with defensive versatility, Solarte should have a lengthier career than that, and he should be a useful utility infielder at the big league level going forward–a Wilson Betemit-type career is possible—but it’s unlikely he’s going to play his way into an everyday job for the long-term, great start or not.
Q:Is Nick Burdi worthy of the Tigers’ pick or is he their next Ryan Perry pick in Round 1?
Jon Erkkila, Arkeny, Iowa
BA:You could really argue that Burdi was born a decade too late. Just 10 years ago, a college reliever with Burdi’s combination of dominating stuff and excellent results could expect to get picked in the top 15-20 picks. Royce Ring went 18th in 2002. Ryan Wagner was picked 14th overall in 2003. Chad Cordero went 20th that same year. Bill Bray went 13th overall in 2004.
Perry was one of the last wave of first-round college closers. He went 21st overall in 2008, one spot behind Josh Fields. Daniel Schlereth was picked by the Diamondbacks five spots later. That came after Casey Weathers went eighth overall to the Rockies in 2007. In 2009, Drew Storen went 10th overall to the Nationals.
On the basis of his stuff and results (a 0.58 ERA with 54 strikeouts compared to 15 hits and 8 walks in 31 innings), Burdi is a better prospect at this point than any of the pitchers mentioned were at the same point in their careers. He’s touched 100+ mph regularly this year and pairs his top-of-the-charts fastball with a plus slider.
But because of the track record of previous first-round college closers, Burdi will probably be available when the Tigers pick at No. 23 in this year’s draft and may last to the end of the first round. The reality is that first-round college closers have a little track record of sustained big league success.
Even in the cases of the few first-round college closers who have had some big league success, they have generally been washed up by age 25—a time when many other pitchers are just reaching the big leagues.
Ring left his best stuff in college. Wagner reached the big leagues very quickly but was never effective partly due to injuries—he never saved a game in the big leagues. Cordero saved 128 games for the Nationals, but he picked up his last save as a 25-year-old. Bray has never topped 50 innings in the big leagues in any season. Weathers never reached the big leagues. Perry’s last major league pitch came as a 25-year-old and Fields has yet to have any sustained big league success. Schlereth’s last big league success came at age 25 as well.
Storen has arguably been the best of the bunch since Cordero, but even his career has had plenty of injury problems. He’s been the Nationals closer for one year and has worked as a setup man otherwise when healthy.
Is Burdi a better prospect than Ryan Perry was? Yes. But considering the college closer track record, he’s still a very risky pick for any team in the first round.
QWhere do you see prep pitcher Mitch Keller of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, going in the draft. Projectable RHP who has thrown 95.
Jeffrey Johnson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
BA:Keller is one of the best prep pitchers in the Midwest. A North Carolina signee whose brother Jon pitches in the Orioles’ organization, Mitch Keller is an interesting pop-up guy who was not seen much on the showcase circuit last summer. His velocity, as you wrote, is noteworthy.
Scouts however haven’t had much of a chance to see how he sustains his velocity, as he’s been working in short bursts in the Perfect Game Spring League since Iowa’s high school baseball season is on a summer schedule. Keller generally sits 89-93 mph, touches 95 with a good curveball. He’s expected to go in the top four rounds next month.