Bob Elliott's Baseball: Solarte a smashing success with the Jays
Newcomer leads Toronto in homers, RBIs
Jeff Smith doesn't want to say Yangervis Solarte was a smash from the first day he managed him with a class-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins in 2008.
"First year I put his name on a Fort Myers lineup card, right after he was promoted, I had him in the No. 3 hole and we were in Daytona," Smith says of the switch-hitting Solarte. "He was batting left-handed and hit a ball over the right-field fence into the parking lot ... and smashed through a windshield."
It doesn't matter whether it's peewee baseball, the minors, Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona or the majors — action stops and ears and eyes lean toward the parking lot any time a batted ball heads for the cars in anticipation of the sound of shattering glass.
Likewise, it doesn't matter whether it's peewee ball, the minors or the majors — the eyes of coaches and managers are drawn to the best hitters.
Solarte and Smith have come a long way since 2008. Smith is now the first-base coach for the Twins and, believe it or not, Solarte leads the Blue Jays in both home runs (nine) and RBIs (25).
Solarte, 30, headed to spring training in Dunedin wearing an extra infielder's tag after starting 74 games at second base, 24 at shortstop, 14 at third, four at first and two at DH for the San Diego Padres last year. This year with the Jays, he's second in games played behind Kevin Pillar and has made 24 starts at third base, 10 at second, three at DH and one at shortstop.
Not a bad return on the $10,000 US investment made by Jose Leon, the Twins' Venezuelan scout.
Wake up and hit
Smith and Solarte were together in Fort Myers in 2008-09, double-A New Britain in 2011 and instructional ball a number of Septembers.
"He is one of my faves of all time," Smith says from the Twins' clubhouse. "Yangervis is one of the rare players who can wake up and hit. He can hit from both sides and is a guy you wanted up in the late innings."
Solarte bounced around the Twins' minor-league system for a few years before what Smith calls his "breakthrough year" in 2011, when he got a then career-high 497 plate appearances. That year at double-A New Britain, Solarte had 36 doubles, three triples, seven homers and knocked in 49 runs. He hit .329 with an .834 OPS in 121 games.
"He persevered... and always had a knack for his barrel finding the ball," Smith says. "He can hit a low pitch, a high pitch. His swing is so short. We had him bat anywhere from the No. 2 to No. 9 hole."
Smith attended the funeral of Solarte's wife, Yuliett Pimentel-Valderrama, in Florida in 2016. Yuliett died of complications from cancer at age 31.
Smith and Solarte make a point to catch up when they can, including at Target Field when the Blue Jays visited this year.
"He came out of his way to thank me for what I did for him," Smith says. "We talked for a lot [in Minneapolis]."
Keep your head up
Rene Tosoni of Coquitlam, B.C., was a teammate of Solarte's with Fort Myers in 2008 and New Britain in 2009-2010. Now, he's a hitting coach in the Atlanta Braves organization with the class-A Florida Fire Frogs.
"Yangervis Solarte could always hit, he wanted to hit," Tosoni says. "He was passionate about hitting from both sides of the plate."
The Texas Rangers signed Solarte as a six-year minor-league free agent for the 2012 season. Former Texas Ranger Bobby Jones managed Solarte with the triple-A Round Rock Express the next two seasons.
"When he was going well, he was funny, he would make a nice play and laugh," Jones says. "Yet, when his game went south, he'd hang his head. We were always preaching to him keep his head up.
"He hit the same way for me as he is for Toronto."
What a day
In 2012, Solarte hit .288 with 11 homers, 54 RBIs and a .745 OPS in 148 games. The next year he batted .276, with 12 homers, 75 RBIs and a .727 OPS in 133 games.
Solarte wanted to get to the majors, but there wasn't a fit with the Rangers in 2014. So he signed with the New York Yankees and played in 75 games for them before being dealt to San Diego in a 2014 trade-deadline deal for Chase Headley and cash. The Jays obtained him in January of this year for minor-leaguers Jared Carkuff and Edward Olivares.
While Solarte has been in a Jays uniform for less than two months, he's already had several memorable moments. He went 5-for-6 — his first career five-hit game — in the opener of a doubleheader at Cleveland and finished the day 8-for-10 with two homers, two doubles and seven RBIs.
The eight hits in the doubleheader broke Paul Molitor's club record of seven, set in 1995.
That same night, Solarte nose-dived into third, cutting his chin — much like Todd Stottlemyre, who went first to third and cut his chin in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series in Philadelphia, the 15-14 game.
Solarte just showed us all how not to slide into a bag when the ball is going to another base <a href="https://t.co/aFcUfX30Bw">pic.twitter.com/aFcUfX30Bw</a>—@ShaneSeney
Teaching the teacher: Jose Bautista had 331 career homers when he was signed by the Atlanta Braves last month. He worked with Canadian hitting instructor Rene Tosoni, who hit five for the 2011 Minnesota Twins, with the class-A Florida Fire Frogs before joining the Braves.
Tosoni said Bautista was very good to work with and talked hitting with his players.
"Most of our kids are fresh out of college," Tosoni said. "We're trying to teach them to have a good pre-game routine off the tee and in the batting cage. Then Jose Bautista comes in with his routine and he stuck with it. For the players to see him visually do it was a big step."
Tosoni played nine seasons in the minors and 60 games in the majors.
"I've had hitting coaches where guys had not played in the majors and some guys would think 'What do you know?' They saw Jose, they trust him. They buy into what our hitting coordinator [Mike Brumley] and I are saying."
MLB Network line of the week: Hall of Fame lefty candidate and Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Kaat: "I would really like to meet the guy who came up with the idea of pitch counts to 100 or not going through a lineup a third time and how both would prevent injury. Because pitchers are still getting injured."
One-dimensional me: A few years ago an assistant GM with the Blue Jays introduced me to a new assistant GM with the Maple Leafs in the press box. Since I was behind and in a hurry I said something like "You will like working with Jack Domenico" — referring to the owner of the Intercounty Baseball League's Toronto Maple Leafs.
And this week I saw his picture on TV. Kyle Dubas is the new general manager of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.
Martin's No. 1: Russell Martin has the highest lifetime WAR among Toronto-born players while playing for the Blue Jays, according to the Twinkietown web site.
No. 1 in terms of all-time "hometown" players is St. Paul-born Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins (53.4). The next are Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants (20.6), the Los Angeles Dodgers' Justin Turner (18.9), the New York Yankees' Dellin Betances (9.8), the Los Angeles Angels' Garrett Richards (7.2) and the Oakland A's Stephen Vogt (6.9).
While born in Toronto, Martin was raised in Chelsea Que., and Montreal. He owns a 6.5 career WAR for the Blue Jays.
Something to look out for: Former Expos beat writer Danny Gallagher is coming out this fall with a book on the 1981 Expos called Blue Monday: The Expos, The Dodgers and the Home Run That Changed Everything. It's being published by Dundurn Press and you can pre-order it online.