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Solarte wins infield sweepstakes

Yangervis Solarte was told Saturday that he had landed the final spot on the Yankees' roster. Jonathan Dyer/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- It sounded pretty ominous when Yangervis Solarte left George M. Steinbrenner Field on Friday night. Be here tomorrow, he was told, but leave your luggage at home.

It meant he still had a job with the Yankees, but no seat on the team charter that was leaving for Houston following the conclusion of the final spring training game Saturday afternoon. Eduardo Nunez, Solarte's only rival for the last remaining spot on the roster, had been told the same thing: Be ready to play, but not to travel.

It probably made for two sleepless nights for two anxious young men.

But the anxiety of Friday gave way to the exhilaration of Saturday, when Solarte was told the Yankees had decided to bring him along as their second backup infielder, a spot that became more important when Brendan Ryan, who was signed to serve as Derek Jeter's backup, came down with a bad back and will begin the season on the disabled list.

Still, right up to the end, Solarte thought he, and not Nunez, was about to be shipped out. The Yankees called Nunez in to the office first, and asked Solarte to wait.

"I thought that was it for me," he said.

Eduardo Nunez

Eduardo Nunez

#26 SS
New York Yankees

2013 STATS

  • GM90
  • HR3

  • RBI28

  • R38

  • OBP.307

  • AVG.260

So he grabbed a baseball and started searching for Jeter to sign it. "I thought at least I'll take a memento of playing with Derek Jeter with me," he said.

Instead, the Yankees will be taking him along, not only with Jeter, but to occasionally take Jeter's place on the field.

In the end, Solarte's eye-popping spring stats -- 2 HR, 9 RBIs, a .429 AVG and a 1.061 OPS -- and ability to play several positions well outweighed the affection many in the Yankees' organization seem to have for Nunez, who once was viewed as a possible successor to Jeter at shortstop.

Solarte, a 26-year-old Venezuelan who had spent eight minor-league seasons in the systems of the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers before being signed by the Yankees as a free agent this offseason, will go to Houston for the season opener on Tuesday.

Nunez, who was thought to have a slight edge for two reasons -- he is on the 40-man roster and has played in the big leagues for parts of the past three seasons, including 112 games in 2011 -- is headed for Triple-A Scranton.

"This is a dream come true, outside of having my family and my children," Solarte said. This is a new beginning. I am so happy."

"It's a very difficult thing to hear because I believe I am a major league player," a dejected Nunez said. "I certainly don't agree with this decision. But I have to continue working hard and not let this decision destroy my career."

Joe Girardi said the final call came down to Solarte's versatility.

"Our thought is that the role that we’re looking for, second and third, there’s more experience there," Girardi said. "He’s played a little bit more second and third than Nuney has in his career. We thought he won the spot in spring training."

An added bonus in Solarte's favor is that he is a switch-hitter. Girardi said he planned to use either Solarte or Dean Anna, who was informed he had made the team on Friday, as backups for both Jeter and second baseman Brian Roberts, and at third base when Kelly Johnson, the everyday third baseman, moves over to first base to give Mark Teixeira a rest.

"We have a lot more options on our roster this year," Girardi said.

Although by no means a youngster -- Solarte will turn 27 on July 7 -- the life in his bat seemed to set him apart from the other candidates this spring, and despite having been sent down to improve his defense each of the past two seasons, Nunez still showed a disturbing tendency to commit errors; he made one in the ninth inning of Friday night's game.

And defense will be important this season, with Jeter and Roberts having limited range in the middle and no real way of knowing how long Ryan will be sidelined with upper back spasms. Ryan's DL stay was backdated seven days, meaning he will be eligible to come off on April 7, but GM Brian Cashman said he will be out for longer than that.

In the meantime, the opportunity is there for Solarte to show that this is more than just a brief visit to the majors, and that after seven fruitless years in the minor leagues he is here to stay.

"I have goosebumps still," Solarte said more than an hour after getting the news. "Wow. Now I have to work hard to make sure I stay here."