By Jason Wyrick
Photo by Jared Anderson
When you think of the best Louisville Baseball teams in program history, 2016’s team immediately comes to mind. Despite falling short to UC Santa Barbara in the Super Regional in a heartbreaking loss to end the season, that team still had, in my eyes, the greatest collection of talent that the Cards’ have ever seen.
In the 2016 draft, seven Louisville stars were drafted within the top 115 picks and three of those went in the first round. The triple-digit fastballs from Zack Burdi, the rare speed and power bat combo in the form Corey Ray and the strikeout master Drew Harrington all were generating buzz among fans interested in seeing their careers continue into professional baseball. Amidst all the star power this draft class stockpiled from UofL, one man is often overlooked. Is it fair? Not at all. Do I get it? Yes. Nick Solak never was flashy. He was never someone that made you stare stupefied at the diamond to try and understand what just happened like a Burdi or a Ray. He never was a guy that piled on stats like a Harrington. He just wasn’t the “flashy” type. At the end of the day though, that is what makes Nick Solak great.
Nick Solak never was “that guy” that anyone talked about and he flew under the radar to the casual fan. He was good, but was he really someone a professional organization would draft very high? He didn’t hit home runs or swipe bases at an alarming clip. He didn’t hit for an unbelievable average. However, to the Major League scouts that made their way to the front row in section 105 at Jim Patterson Stadium, two things about his game made him stand out.
What was Nick Solak? Well-rounded and dependable.
He held his own at second base and even thrived there in his junior season despite his injury. He stole a handful of bases when the opportunity presented itself. He drew walks, strolling to first about once every two games. He hit for a solid average, barreling up the ball consistently and knowing how to work all fields. That is what the New York Yankees saw in him when they decided to roll the dice on a kid from Illinois by way of Louisville in the second round.
He spent his first summer in pro ball with the Staten Island Yankees in 2016. It came as a complete shock to everyone in the Yankees organization, let me assure you, but he did more of the same; the same stuff that he’s always done.
After completing his first pro season with Staten Island, he returned to Louisville to finish school and to get ready for what would be his first full professional season.
He opened the 2017 campaign in advanced-A (commonly referred to as “high-A”) with the Tampa Yankees. More of the same was on the menu for his managers, hitting .301 with decent pop and consistently being solid in the field. He spent 100 games in Tampa before moving up to finish the season in New Jersey and AA ball with the Trenton Thunder.
AA ball is widely regarded as the last and most important step of development in a minor leaguer’s career, so when he was sent to Tampa Bay in a three team deal that sent Rays’ outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona and Diamondbacks’ third baseman Brandon Drury to the Bronx, it caught everyone off guard. “It was surprising getting traded when I did,” Solak Said. “[Tampa Bay]’s a fun organization to be a part of and to show up to work everyday.”
Solak was a classic bat-first prospect. He was never was going to be a plus defender at the next level, but his good athleticism and dependable bat would always get him into the lineup somewhere. With the Rays’ AA ballclub in Montgomery, he did just that. He split his 2018 between second base and left field in an attempt to make him a more versatile defender and in turn, make it easier to slot him into the lineup somewhere and compete for a spot on the big league roster during the Tampa Bay Rays’ rebuild.
Now, with AA in the rear-view mirror, he continues this development in both positions at the AAA level in Durham. “The ability to play multiple positions really helps any team you’re on… it helps a manager make a lineup that is going to help the team win.” He continued, “you just try and do everything you can each and every day to help the team you’re on win. Usually when you’re playing that way, your numbers take care of themselves and when the big league club needs you, you’re ready to perform and help them win.”
A month into AAA, he looks poised to refine his game to further plead his case for a contract purchase and eventually a call to the show. Like any developing player, he has holes in his game. However, generally speaking, at this point a prospect is who he is and the organization is still comfortable assigning him to the next level. Now, it’s all about masking that weakness and minimizing its effects on the rest of a players’ performance to show why he deserves a spot on the rebuilding team.
For a guy who was never flashy but always consistent, that challenge comes with minimal pressure. For now, Nick Solak is perfectly content enjoying his time in AAA with Durham and visiting some familiar places and faces along the way. On returning to Louisville, he said “it’s really awesome. I really loved and enjoyed my time at Louisville. I played there for three years and spent my first offseason in Louisville, so for four years it was my home… it has been a really cool experience to be back here and play here.” In calling a place home, one is bound to enjoy the important things the city has to offer, and it is no surprise that Solak didn’t waste any time returning to his favorite restaurants: Sidebar, Feast BBQ and The Eagle; and seeing those who are important to him who are still in the area, notably Louisville Baseball coach Dan McDonnell.
After this week, it will be back to the road for Solak, whose Durham Bulls are not slated to return to Louisville this season after this April series. However, the road has more stops along the way. Stops where old friends will reunite and their own paths will intersect.
Of those seven teammates drafted in 2016, five of them have now reached AAA. Kyle Funkhouser, Zack Burdi and another from 2015’s class, Josh Rogers, are all in the International League of AAA. “It’s a lot of fun keeping up with everybody and it’s also a lot fun playing against some of the guys.” He faced former Louisville and Yankees minor league teammate Josh Rogers this season already in Norfolk, and with Toledo and Charlotte plastered all over the Bulls’ schedule, he knows it is only a matter of time before he faces Burdi and Funkhouser as well. “It’s a cool opportunity, you get really close to those guys.”
Despite the friendships and the dinners after games, as professionals, it is all a part of the job description. “It’s pretty much another day at the office. You know the guy that you’re facing a little bit better and you can give a little better scouting report to the team because you’ve spent so much time watching them and playing behind them. I’m really looking forward to when Zack gets healthy and back in Charlotte and facing Funk and facing Rogers and hoping the best for them too.”
Nick Solak’s journey has taken him many places already. From growing up in Illinois and his second home in Louisville to a minor league path that has sent him to Staten Island, Tampa, New Jersey, Montgomery and now Durham, he is a well-traveled guy who is just trying to find his way as a ballplayer. As his journey continues, don’t be surprised when the guy who always flew under the radar quietly continues to make a name for himself. Sooner than later, he is going to add a third home to his collection, one that he hopes will be more than just a small stop along the way. Nick Solak fully intends to return to the Tampa Bay area and stay there, but this time on the St. Petersburg side.