Finding the bright spots in this season have been rather difficult. When asked by fellow SB Nation blog The Good Phight, myjah responded with “pass?” after determining an alcohol joke was maybe a touch off-color considering pitching coach Neil Allen’s issues this year. Nonetheless, the performance from SS/3B Eduardo Nunez has not gone unnoticed, so much so that now the team is even launching a write-in vote campaign for him to go to the All-Star Game.
Eduardo Nunez was once the pitching tandem of Scott Tyler and Travis Bowyer. Seriously! I mean, technically he was merely acquired for minor league pitcher Miguel Sulbaran, but if you want to have fun with the full transaction tree, it goes...
Scott Tyler and Travis Bowyer —> Luis Castillo —> Drew Butera and Dustin Martin —> Miguel Sulbaran —> Eduardo Nunez
Terry Ryan has plenty of faults, but I have to say that this tree has come out looking pretty good considering where it started. We have to credit the front office for targeting Nunez because not only did Sulbaran’s development appear to stall in Double-A last season (along with not pitching at all this season), but Nunez has also become a much better player since the trade. Prior to the trade in early 2014, Nunez was... well, not good. Here’s what I found when I looked at all Yankees hitters from 2010-2013 (Nunez’s tenure with the Yankees), sorted by WAR.
Dead last. Nunez was a special kind of bad, a player that failed to produce in all facets of the game but still offered enough promise that he was repeatedly sent out to the field. He was fast, his bat wasn’t awful in the minor leagues, he played shortstop, and Derek Jeter was getting old.
Although his bat was below-average (that 86 is for wRC+, an all-encompassing offensive statistic that simply stated that his offense was 14% below average since 100 is average), that was tolerable for a shortstop. The real problem was that he was a disaster in the field. That -36.2 was his defensive value, which you’ll notice is easily the worst among anyone on that list. Travis Hafner is the next-closest and he was a 1B/DH, so most of his lost value was simply from playing the easiest positions on the field. Nunez got his rating playing mainly short and third.
How was he so awful? Well, he made 42 errors in 1789 1/3 innings. Adjust that to 150 games (FanGraphs’ accepted measure for one full defensive season) and Nunez committed roughly 32 errors over one season. Last year’s error leader was Oakland shortstop Marcus Semien with 35 in 152 games. According to UZR/150, Nunez was worth -33.9 runs as a shortstop and -24.9 runs as a third baseman as a Yankee. Last year, no shortstop was even one-third as bad and only Pablo Sandoval and Conor Gillespie were worse third basemen with at least the same number of innings played. Still not satisfied (or horrified)? According to Defensive Runs Saved, Nunez was at -37 as a Yankee shortstop. Bringing up the rear of last year’s shortstops was Asdrubal Cabrera and he was only a -8. (Somehow Nunez was just -2 as a third baseman.) Any way you cut it, Nunez was a liability in the field.
Yet for some reason, he caught Terry Ryan’s eye and the trade was made to bring him over to Minnesota to become a utility infielder. Although he hasn’t spent very much time at second base (thanks to Brian Dozier), he has continued playing short and third and amazing his defense has stopped being horrid. Advanced defensive stats are significantly volatile - the common rule of thumb is that you need three years of full-time play before they become reliable - so there was always the chance that Nunez had always been a better defender and just hadn’t shown it yet. There’s also the possibility that the Twins simply taught him how to be a better defender. Who knows. Regardless, we do know that Nunez has just 16 errors in 1074 2/3 innings as an infielder (about 20 per season), his UZR/150 as a shortstop is up to 8.3 though third base has dropped to -25.3, and his total DRS between short and third is -4, a significant improvement over the -39 he had as a Yankee.
That’s not just where Nunez has improved, though. He was a career .267/.313/.379 hitter with the Yankees, which as I already mentioned came out to an 86 wRC+. As a Twin? Well, see for yourself.
The on-base percentage is virtually the same, but his batting average has gone up thanks to a better BABIP, he’s had a better isolated power which has led to a better slugging percentage, and all of sudden he’s become a slightly above-average hitter. Oh, and that table I’ve displayed above? That’s all Twins hitters from 2014-2016. Yeah, as of right now Nunez is tied with Miguel Sano as being the fifth-most valuable Twins hitter in that time frame.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Nunez’s improvement and now I finally get to my main point: being cautious. We’ve been grumbling about the cause of the Twins’ demise this season and there have been plenty of theories thrown about. I’ll eventually get to writing a post about my thoughts, but I’ll give you a teaser on one of them: The Twins have vastly overvalued their own players after career years, often times handing out unnecessary contract extensions when simple logic would have warned that they were a bad idea. Ryan Doumit. Phil Hughes. Kurt Suzuki. Mike Pelfrey. (Advanced stats suggested he had been unlucky his first year.) The stubbornness to hold on to Josh Willingham after his first season. All those players had reasons to believe they were better players than they really were and the organization felt it was necessary to lock them up immediately, only to watch them deteriorate just as fast. (For what it’s worth, Suzuki has shown a resurgence at the plate recently so his inclusion may be premature.) Still, the Twins seemed to get infatuated with successes and they made the mistake of locking them up.
As much as I love Nunez’s success, this is a career year for him. Maybe he’s a late bloomer? However, it’s also possible that he falls back to earth in the future. I do think he has value as a backup infielder, so if the Twins were to indeed re-sign him after the season, they’d have to pay him accordingly. Maybe a two-year contract that pays him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-8 million per year. Third base is Miguel Sano’s position and second base is manned by Dozier, so the only way Nunez would be a regular would be at shortstop, which already is occupied by Eduardo Escobar. If Escobar struggled or was hurt like he was this season, then Nunez could step in. If Nunez faltered, Escobar would take the reins. That would be the only way I could accept a Nunez extension.
You might be surprised that I’m not suggesting a trade, and honestly I actually was going to argue that when I first started writing. However, we have to look at the facts: Nunez isn’t ordinarily a starting-caliber player. Teams might look at this season as a flash in the pan. I can’t imagine him fetching very much in return anyway, so why bother? Even if he regresses, he could be a cheap-ish safety net for the infield. That has value, because I guarantee we wouldn’t want to see the next coming of Matt Tolbert out there.
Long story short, I think Nunez is worth signing to a short extension. Stick to two years but don’t even think of three. The Twins have had bad luck with contract extensions in the past but this could be one that could pay off.