Nunez took Justin Verlander deep last October, no easy feat. - Gregory Shamus
Nunez might be the most difficult player to decode on the Yankees' roster. What can you make of him?
Name: Eduardo Nunez
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 25 (born 6/15/1987)
Height: 6'0" Weight: 185 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control through end of 2017
2012 statistics: (MLB): 38 games, .292/.330/.393, 4 2B, 1 HR, 11 SB, .312 wOBA, 93 wRC+
(AAA): 38 games, .227/.256/.288, 4 2B, 2 HR, 16 SB, .246 wOBA, 36 wRC+
His potential at the plate is enough to prompt the greatest living Yankee to say last month "They better find a way to get that kid 500 at-bats," yet his problems in the field resulted in an early demotion in 2012. The misfires from shortstop can get frustrating, but it sure is difficult for "nobodies" to battle arguably the best pitcher on the planet for nine pitches in a tight playoff game and eventually homer. Yes, the Yankees certainly have something in Nunez, but how can they harness it?
Nunez was signed as an amateur back in 2004, and after a few slow years in A-ball from '06-'08, he had a breakout year at Double-A Trenton in '09 (.322/.349/.433 in a pitcher-friendly home park). That prompted a promotion to Scranton in 2010 as well as his first cup of coffee in the big leagues later that season. Nunez had played all but six of his over-500 games in the minors through 2010 as a shortstop, but the Yankees wanted to see if they could build their own utility man rather than needing to trade for one halfway through the season (as they did to get Jerry Hairston, Jr. in '09). Nunez's teammate Ramiro Pena had these abilities, but he could not hit his way out of a paper bag. Nunez demonstrated more potential at the plate, but was not as surehanded as Pena. It was a battle of the tildes, and Nunez appeared to emerge the winner when the Yankees chose to carry him on their bench rather than Pena in 2011.
During his first full season, Nunez found his way into 112 games, filling in short-term at shortstop and third base when Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were sidelined with injuries. Despite improved range over Jeter, he continually suffered from throwing error problems not seen since the days of Chuck Knoblauch. While not considered any defensive wizard, Nunez was not considered a total butcher--he had a .976 fielding percentage in 101 games at short in Triple-A after all--but he has been an errors machine since coming to the big leagues. Since he's a natural shortstop though, his range compensates for some errors, but he proved an inadequate third baseman. The Yankees finally decided to pull the plug on the "Nunez utilityman" experiment in May of last year, and he did not return to the big club until September (a jammed thumb kept him out of action for some time as well).
When he came back, the Yankees decided to try him in starts against lefties. It seemed to work very well in the small sample size, as he hit .360/.400/.460 in his 55 plate appearances against southpaws. He was on the ALDS roster, then cut for the ALCS until Jeter's devastating ankle injury. Nunez joined the team again, and though the team was swept, it wasn't due to any drop-off in production at shortstop--Nunez had two hits in his two starts, a triple and a homer.
The Yankees are content with keeping Nunez at shortstop and letting him work through growing pains to at least improve himself at that position. It's probably a good move, since he never appeared comfortable at third base or anywhere else. The problem with that though is that it really limits the ways of getting him into the lineup. When healthy, Jeter plays almost every day. So where does that leave Nunez? The righty half of a DH platoon with Travis Hafner? Perhaps the Yanks will give Jeter more time off at shortstop than normal this year since he's coming off a brutal ankle injury, and Nunez can spend some time there.
It's not too difficult to see why Nunez generates excitement. In the linked video to the homer off Verlander, it is evident how much he can scald a baseball when he gets a hold of it.
Even on defense, where he has slumped, he has a strong arm at shortstop and good range.
He has great speed on the bases for stealing and keeping the defense on its toes (not to mention an amusing tendency to send his helmet flying). Nunez just needs to become a little more patient at the plate and more accurate in the field. He's a work in progress, not one that should be abandoned.
Maybe Nunez is Jeter's successor, and maybe he's not. Either way, Yogi is not the only Yankee fan that realizes they need to get him some at-bats to see what they have in Noonz.