By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
Jeff Smith doesn’t want to say Yangervis Solarte was a smash from the first day he ever managed him with class-A Fort Myers Miracle in 2008.
“First year I put his name on a Fort Myers lineup card -- right after he was promoted from Beloit -- I had him in the No. 3 hole and we were in Daytona,” said Smith 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 does not matter whether it is peewee baseball, the minors, Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona, or the majors action stops, ears and eyes lean towards the parking lot as a batted ball heads towards the cars in anticipation of the noise of tinkling glass.
Likewise it does not matter whether it is peewee ball, the minors or the majors, the eyes of coaches and manager are drawn to the best hitters.
Solarte and Smith have come a long way since 2008: Smith is the first base coach of the Minnesota Twins and believe it or not, Solarte leads the Blue Jays in both home runs and RBIs.
Solarte has more homers and RBIs than Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak or Troy Tulowitzki. Donaldson missed time due to a shoulder injury, Smoak missed time as he was on paternity leave to be with his wife and daughter while Tulowitzki has yet to play a game after having surgery on both heels.
Solarte headed to 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. This year with the Jays he’s second in games played behind Kevin Pillar.
He leads the Jays with nine homers and 25 RBIs. Not a bad return on the investment Twins’ Venezuelan scout Jose Leon made of $10,000 US. In the field he has made 24 starts at third base, 10 at second, three at DH and one at shortstop.
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,” said Smith 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.”
The numbers were not there all the time for Solarte and that was the games played column: 53 with the Rookie-class Dominican Summer League Twins in 2006; 52 with the Rookie-class Gulf Coast team in 2007; 83 games at Beloit (42) and Fort Myers in 2008; 16 with New Britain (three), Fort Myers (four) and the Gulf Coast Twins (nine) in 2009; and 84 at New Britain (32), Fort Myers (45) and the Gulf Coast (seven).
And then ...
“He had his breakthrough year in 2011, first time he had ever had 497 at-bats,” Smith said. That year at 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 said. “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.”
Besides that night in Daytona, Smith has other memories of Solarte. Like every time they see each other, 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. We talked for a lot (in Minneapolis).”
Smith attended the funeral of Solarte’s wife Yuliett Pimentel-Valderrama at Cape Coral, Fla. near Fort Myers. He lost his wife due to complications from cancer at age 31 in September of 2016.
Outfielder Rene Tosoni of Coquitlam, BC, 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 said. “He was passionate about hitting from both sides of the plate.”
There were times when either Tosoni or Solarte were injured. They rehabbed together and were at extended spring together in Fort Myers.
As Smith said “Not a lot of players go through seven different levels, becomes an impact player and do it all with a smile.”
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 said. “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 going for Toronto.”
In 2012, he 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.
Jones spoke of Solarte’s desire to get to the majors, but there wasn’t a fit with the Rangers in 2014. So, Solarte signed with the New York Yankees and was dealt to San Diego in a 2014 trade deadline deal for Chase Headley and cash. The Jays obtained him Jan. 6 for minor-leaguers Jared Carkuff and Edward Olivares.
While Solarte has only been in a Jays uniform for less than two months he has placed his name alongside some of most memorable. He went 5-for-6 with 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 record of seven in 1995 at Kansas City.
And the 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 games.
And he has merrily skipped through the first quarter of the season.
Teaching the slugger: Jose Bautista had 331 career homers when he was signed by the Atlanta Braves. He worked with hitting instructor was Rene Tosoni, who hit five with 2011 Minnesota Twins, and is with the class-A Florida Fire Frogs in Kissimmee the former spring home of the Houston Astros.
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 Intercounty Toronto Maple Leafs owner.
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 had the highest recorded lifetime WAR among Toronto-born players to play for the Blue Jays, according to the Twinkietown web site.
No. 1 among 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), Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner (18.9), New York Yankees Devlin Betances (9.8), Los Angeles Angels Garrett Richards (7.2) and Oakland A’s Stephen Vogt (6.9).
While born in Toronto, Martin was raised in Chelsea Que. and Montreal. He owns a 6.5 WAR for the Blue Jays.
Something to look for: Former Expos beat writer Danny Gallagher is coming out with a book this fall 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. You can preorder at amazon.com, indigo.ca, etc.