Acquired in a July trade that sent righty Peter Fairbanks to the Rays, Rangers infield prospect Nick Solak impressed upon being promoted to the show late in 2019, hitting .293/.393/.491 with five home runs, six doubles, a triple and two steals in 135 plate appearances. Pair that with his .289/.362/.532 slash in Triple-A last year, and it’s easy to see why Rangers president of baseball ops Jon Daniels, manager Chris Woodward and the rest of the organization’s decision-makers are so intrigued by Solak’s potential.
However, while there’s room for flexibility in the infield, the Texas organization is more focused on having Solak learn a position that is largely new to him this spring; Woodward tells Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News that learning the ropes in center field is Solak’s “top priority” in Spring Training. Danny Santana is currently the team’s top option in center, but playing Solak there would free Santana to bounce around the diamond.
It’s a semi-surprising development for the 25-year-old Solak, who has played just 165 professional innings in center — nearly all of which came with the Rays’ Double-A affiliate back in 2018. He’s played left field a bit more regularly (506 pro innings), but the overwhelming majority of Solak’s experience on defense has come at second base, where he’s logged 2951 innings.
The possibility of Solak suiting up as even a semi-regular option in center field is indeed intriguing. Playing Solak in the outfield and not at third base would free the Rangers to use Todd Frazier at the hot corner regularly, giving former top prospect Ronald Guzman and perhaps non-roster players like Greg Bird and Sam Travis a chance to impress at first base. It’d also allow Santana to shift into a super-utility role that probably better suits him; the Twins tried Santana as a regular center fielder early in his career without much success.
For much of the offseason, center field looked to be an area of need in Arlington. (Of course, it very arguably still does, even with the Solak wrinkle now in play.) Delino DeShields has been the Rangers’ most regular option in recent years, but he’s now in Cleveland. Joey Gallo logged significant innings there in 2019 and graded out surprisingly well in the estimation of many defensive metrics, but the Rangers seem to prefer him in right field. Prospects Leody Taveras and Julio Pablo Martinez need more time to develop. And the Rangers clearly weren’t enamored of the options on the free-agent and trade markets — at least not at their respective asking prices.
Can Solak successfully make the move? FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen pegs his speed and arm at average on the 20-80 scale but grades him as a well below-average defender overall (though he nevertheless checked in as the game’s No. 109 overall prospect on Longenhagen’s rankings). Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo offer similar opinions at MLB.com, calling him a “fringy” defender all over the infield and outfield despite his athleticism and ability to run. Of course, if Solak hits like he did in Triple-A and in his big league debut, the Rangers might very well be able to live with some defensive growing pains as he adjusts to increased outfield reps. Santana will remain on hand as an option, should the experiment prove unsuccessful, but the manner in which Solak takes to his new position will be an fascinating scenario to watch as the Cactus League progresses.