The Rangers entered this offseason in a unique position. While many teams appear to be content to wait patiently for the free agent market to get moving and a handful are actively trying to clear salary, the Rangers seem like one of the few clubs approaching the market aggressively. That stance isn’t necessarily reflective of their standing in the AL West — they finished a distant third behind the A’s and the Astros — but it’s partially an artificial urgency created by the opening of their new stadium in 2020.
General Manager Jon Daniels has made it clear that the team will be looking to improve its roster any way they can, including dipping into the top-tier free agent market. They’re reportedly “aggressively” pursuing Josh Donaldson and have been linked to a number of other big names. With their outfield more or less set, with Willie Calhoun, Joey Gallo, and Nomar Mazara manning the three spots from left to right, the infield is the likely target for an upgrade on the position player side of the roster.
Third base seems like the best place to pursue a high-end free agent simply because there are more of them on the market than any of the other infield positions. Plus, the Rangers have Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor’s unmovable contracts entrenched up-the-middle. The problem is the Rangers infielder with the best 2020 projection is currently penciled in as their everyday third baseman.
Nick Solak was acquired at the trade deadline this year from Tampa Bay, a victim of a roster logjam and an overabundance of 2B/OF types in the Rays system. He’s always been able to hit, compiling a .294/.383/.468 slash line in the minor leagues, good for a combined 138 wRC+. Once the Rangers called him up in late August, he simply continued hitting. He posted a 126 wRC+ in the majors across 135 plate appearances and showed off strong tools across the board.
His hit tool carries him at the plate, but he showed surprising game power in his first taste of Triple-A this year. That’s not surprising considering the usage of the dragless ball in the top level of the minors. His ISO topped .200 for the first time in his professional career in Durham, jumped up over .300 once he joined the Rangers Triple-A affiliate, and it sat just below .200 once he was called up to the majors. With a contact rate for Texas just 5% better than league average, he won’t be confused for David Fletcher, but that solid contact he was making throughout the minor leagues really benefited him once he reached the highest levels.
With a swing geared towards line-drive contact, he may have to make a few adjustments to generate consistent lift to continue hitting for power. His batted ball profile throughout the minors and in his brief stint in the majors skewed too heavily toward groundball contact. He enjoyed an extremely high 26.2% home run per fly ball rate in 2019, helping him launch a combined 32 home runs across Triple-A and the majors. With an average exit velocity and barrel rate just above league average, that home run rate doesn’t seem sustainable.
His strong contact ability goes hand-in-hand with a great approach at the plate. In his major league cup of coffee, he didn’t chase pitches out of the zone very often — his chase rate was 17% better than league average — but aggressively swung at pitches in the zone that he could handle. His management of the strike zone led to a good walk rate and a decent strikeout rate after making the jump to the big leagues.
His contributions on the other side of the ball have always been an unanswered question. He was projected to be an average second baseman, but because the Rays had an overabundance of infield prospects, he saw some time in the outfield in 2019. His good speed helped him hold his own in the outfield and that added positional flexibility could be the key to seeing playing time in 2020.
If the Rangers do manage to secure a top-tier third baseman, they’ll have some tough decisions to make with Solak’s position. The right side of their infield is filled with question marks. Odor has been extremely disappointing since signing a six-year contract extension after the 2016 season. Their incumbent second baseman has posted a combined 75 wRC+ over the last three years despite blasting 78 home runs, the second-most for a second baseman in that time. The remaining $36 million on his contract through 2022 (including the buyout of his 2023 club option) makes him nearly immovable. Still, if the Rangers have designs on competing next year, it’s hard to believe they’ll stick with Odor if he continues to be a drain offensively and defensively.
Danny Santana is penciled in at first, but his career year last year doesn’t really seem all that sustainable. A high BABIP paired with a high strikeout rate and a sudden burst of power screams regression. His defensive versatility makes him a better option as a utilityman, filling in all over the diamond. Perhaps the Rangers would be willing to move Calhoun to first. He’s currently lined up in left field, but his experience as a second base prospect could benefit him at the cold corner. That would open up a spot in the outfield for Solak to get regular playing time. His experience in the outfield in Triple-A could make him an option as a utilityman, but his bat looks too good to be relegated to a part-time role.
Even if the Rangers add a third baseman via free agency, they could justifiably add another two or three high-quality players to the mix. There are very few guarantees on the roster right now and a lot of potential moving pieces. But through all the comings and goings, the Rangers should be thinking about how to get Solak’s bat into the lineup regularly. Where he ends up in the field is a question that will likely wait until spring to be answered.