In one of the more intriguing positional battles in Spring Training, Nick Solak beating Danny Santana in center field is best scenario for the Texas Rangers.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed a likely conclusion that either Danny Santana would be the Opening Day center fielder for the Texas Rangers, or the club would solicit outside help. However, as the free agent market and trade market dry up, a push from within the organization could create and interesting position battle for center field. Nick Solak was expected to take reps in center this spring as a potential alternative to Danny Santana, however as smoke continues to billow surrounding his role, it feels more and more likely that Solak could start the season in center. If that’s the case, that could be the best case scenario for the Rangers who are looking to create the best lineup possible without any likely outside help.
Solak emerged late in 2019 as a legitimate bat that should be competing for an everyday spot in the Rangers lineup. In 33 games, Solak hit .293 with an .884 OPS while driving in 17 runs in a short span of game time. Acquired just partway through the year for reliever Peter Fairbanks, Solak’s emergence was a revelation, a sign that the club had a Major League ready bat in the organization that could offset some of their offensive struggles seen throughout the year. However, for all the promise and hype surrounding Solak’s bat, there were questions as to how he fits on a team defensively. Predominantly a second baseman, Solak played second and third for Texas at the big league level and both corner outfield spots in Triple-A as the club searched for a way to maximize his offensive qualities while minimizing his negative defensive impact.
His time at third base did not go well and poured a bit of cold water on the idea that he could be a long-term option at the hot corner even with a full spring to work at the position. His name has been thrown around in first base discussions as Texas looks to generate more offense from first base than Ronald Guzman has provided recently but Solak’s defensive struggles could be magnified at first. Second base is his best positional fit but the Rangers have Rougned Odor inked to a long-term contract and despite his struggles at the plate, seem committed to working the lefty out of his slump and back to the emerging star status he had early in his career.
With the infield a tough sell, logically the next step would be trying his hand at the corner outfield spots. He played both left and right field at the minor league level in 2019 with decent results, but Texas has Willie Calhoun in left field and Joey Gallo cemented in right at the big league level. That leaves just center field as a viable option for an everyday gig to start the season. It’s a tough fit despite Solak’s natural athleticism and a tough position to transition to once you reach the big league level. But Texas has had success before turning Delino DeShields from a second baseman into an elite center fielder, they will look to find similar success with Solak this spring.
The idea that Solak in center field is the best scenario for Texas is all predicated on Solak being a near average defender at the position. He has just 13 innings of pro ball in center, back in his time with the Rays Triple-A affiliate, but that sample size isn’t large enough to try and draw conclusions from. Operating under the assumption that Solak makes a strong showing in center this spring, it would allow the Rangers to construct the most potent lineup available to them offensively, while limiting how much their defensive weaknesses might be exposed.
Getting Solak into the lineup everyday is step one and the most important for the Rangers according to many. He hits for average with solid power and can help offset some of the all or nothing hitters Texas currently has in their lineup. With Solak in center, Danny Santana, who was the breakout star for Texas last season, would be free to return to his super-utility role that saw him play everywhere but catcher in 2019. His versatility was utilized regularly and he played in 130 games for the Rangers hitting .283 with a career-high 28 home runs.
Santana would also not be playing center field everyday which is a position that while he has accumulated 1100 big league innings at, he is a fairly significant minus defender. This of course is still predicated on Solak emerging as a better everyday defensive center fielder than Santana. With Santana free to roam positionally the Rangers could then address their offensive struggles at first base by using Santana as a platoon at first with Ronald Guzman. Santana is still not a stellar defender at first, but with more reps, should be respectable and his bat provides enough value to justify the defensive drop off. On days where Guzman plays, Santana could still fit into the lineup at a number of positions. Ideally, Guzman would then play first on days that the Rangers face a right-handed starter, which his offensive splits are far better against and Santana could slide over to third and replace Todd Frazier, who posts significantly better numbers against left-handers.
As a switch-hitter, Santana carries offensive value against starters from both sides and would represent a better utility defender than Nick Solak. If the roles were reversed and Santana were in center, it would be harder to justify using Solak as an everyday utility man knowing he, so far, is only an average defender at second base. While Santana has made clear his hopes to be the Rangers everyday center fielder, to construct the best offensive lineup, finding a way to get both Santana and Solak in everyday is key and it’s possible that the easiest route to doing that is with Nick Solak playing center field.