Nick Solak’s role in the Texas Rangers lineup was in question to start the year. Now though, he looks like a lineup mainstay with a cemented spot in Texas.
Friday nights performance reminded all those watching the Texas Rangers just how important Nick Solak is the present, and future, of this baseball team. The 25-year old joined the club last season in an under the radar deal for Texas’ fast-rising reliever Pete Fairbanks. At first glance, many who support the Rangers voiced concern that the club would move a promising, young reliever for an older prospect who profiled best as a utility man at the big league level. But Texas saw a ‘professional hitter’ who could add a needed quality to their lineup laden with potential but lacking in consistency.
The move paid off for the Texas Rangers who have seen Solak go from a prospect on a hot streak when he debuted in 2019, to a bonafide everyday player who is better served building a lineup around than trying to intersperse into games when the opportunity arises. After his 33 game stint for the Rangers last season that saw him hit an impressive .293/.393/.491/.884 he emerged as a real candidate to fight for an everyday place in the lineup entering the 2020 season. However, for all that he showed offensively, there were still concerns about his defensive fit and whether his bat could outweigh the struggles of his glove.
He was beaten out by Danny Santana for the Opening Day job in center field to little surprise. But he was still able to find a role in the lineup with various injuries that hit the team just prior to the start of the year including one to Willie Calhoun that prevented him from opening the season in left field. Calhoun is now back but Santana has been hit by the injury bug leaving a vacancy in center field that Solak has helped cover. As time passes though, what seems like a stand-in gig in center could morph into a permanent job, especially with how Solak continues to swing the bat.
His Friday night performance just propelled that narrative forward as the Illinois native went 3-4 a pair of doubles and a home run that helped the Rangers pick up a come from behind road win against the Colorado Rockies. His numbers, which already were impressive, now look startling in contrast to much of the Rangers lineup. Through 17 games, Solak is hitting .311 with an OPS of .825 and a 121 wRC+. His strikeout rate sits at just 11.8% while his walk rate is nearing the 9% mark. He continues to spread the ball around the park with at least 30% of his balls in play going to opposite field, center or as pulled balls. His value at the plate continues to rise and while he’s still relatively young in his career, it doesn’t feel like a massive stretch to think he could consistently hit near .300 on an annual basis.
That of course, is the optimistic side of things, but to this point, Solak has given us no reason to be anything but optimistic. He has no glaring holes in his approach at the plate and if you had to single out an area where he needs work, it’s generating more power. However, the club seems to think that will come over time and if he’s hitting like he is regularly, power concerns become secondary.
It’s not just his bat that is continuing to improve though. His defensive ability suddenly feels like less of a liability. He still looks shaky at times in center field, as most would learning that position on the fly, but there is visual confirmation that his ability is improving. Friday we saw Solak make a pair of diving/sliding grabs in center field.
The first, shown above, was a bit of a redemption grab on a choppy route to a fly ball. The tracking could use a little work but the athleticism to change speeds and get to that ball is notable. His second grab, which also happened to rob Arenado of a hit, was a much more natural path to a tough play for a center fielder. A line drive that’s dropping quickly right in front of you is hard to get underneath yet Solak did just that, his second time flashing the leather on the night.
The stats will still tell you that Solak is off to an underwhelming start in center field and that’s probably the case. But over time it’s been evident that he’s improving at the position and he does feature the athleticism to make plays. Long-term, is center field Solak’s best position? No it’s not. He probably best fits at second base but currently, that spot is occupied by Rougned Odor and even with his time of having a guaranteed role waning, the club’s addition of Derek Dietrich points to the starting role at second less up for grabs than other spots.
So when Danny Santana returns where does Solak go? The club seem intent on letting Santana hold a role as the starting center fielder for the time being and despite his struggles at the plate prior to his injury, it seems like he’ll be able to regain that role when he returns. It’s possible the club could try to shift Danny Santana back to his super-utility role but the club and Santana seem in agreement on a desire to not do that again this year. If Santana returns to center, perhaps Solak could shift over and take over left field.
Currently left field is a job split between Shin-Soo Choo and Willie Calhoun with Solak and Rob Refsnyder filling in on occasion. But neither Choo nor Calhoun is in left field because of their defensive reputation at the spot. Much like Solak, Texas is looking for a way to get Choo and Calhoun at-bats and only one of them can DH. But Solak’s performance and long-term future beg the question of whether the Texas Rangers need Choo and Calhoun in the lineup everyday. Neither is off to a flaming start at the plate and although Choo seems to be the club’s go-to leadoff man, there are reasons to consider shifting him into a part-time role.
Choo is in the final year of his contract with the Rangers and at 38, it seems highly unlikely he would be back for an 8th season. Calhoun however, is in a similar spot as Solak as a 25-year old with plenty of team control on the horizon. His best spot in the lineup is seemingly DH and while he’s struggled to open the year, the talent is hard to deny and Texas feels he has a long-term role with the club. If the Texas Rangers are willing to either shift Choo to part-time or is able to find a trade partner for the veteran, it would open up the regular DH role for Calhoun and let Solak start in left field where he probably offers more defensively than he does in center. It also keeps Solak in the lineup where he is arguably one of the two best offensive weapons Texas has alongside Joey Gallo. For now, Solak will continue to start in center. But when Santana returns, the Texas Rangers have to find a way to make Nick Solak an everyday player