How Eduardo Nunez Helps the Giants
Trade flurries have picked up in recent days, with the San Francisco Giants and Minnesota Twins consummating a deal late Thursday which saw infielder Eduardo Nunez sent west in exchange for Triple-A pitching prospect Adalberto Mejia.
Mejia is interesting for the Twins. In the recent update to Baseball America’s top-100 prospects, Mejia ranked 91st overall, and they view him as the most MLB-ready arm in the San Francisco system. That makes him a perfect fit for the Twins, who have the MLB’s worst starter ERA entering play Friday (tied with the Reds at 5.24) with no impact arms between the imminent-to-be-promoted Jose Berrios at Triple-A and the currently lackluster Kohl Stewart, who is toiling at Double-A Chattanooga.
But the key piece moving here is Nunez, the former heir to the Derek Jeter throne in New York who has turned himself into something far more than a punchline with his steady play over the last two years with the Twins. Nunez was very erratic defensively for the Yankees, providing a number of GIFs such as this one (he's the shortstop) to go along with too many popups and frankly, just not enough offensive production:
His first go-round with the Twins was no walk in the park either. He bounced around between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester and the big leagues -- hitting just .250/.271/.382 in the big leagues -- and later battled a bit of an oblique injury that had plagued him throughout different times in his career.
There’s no way of knowing for sure if the Twins considered it, but he had to be a legitimate non-tender candidate at that point. And that rapidly increasing service time, combined with it being his last option year and quite frankly not much to show for his time on the field, had to be a big reason why the Yankees designated him for assignment that spring and took the first decent lefty pitching prospect they were offered. By the way, that pitching prospect -- Miguel Sulbaran, whom the Twins acquired from the Dodgers for Drew Butera in 2013 -- hasn’t pitched this year with an injury at High-A.
In all, Nunez provided the Yankees with 270 games and 827 plate appearances spread across four seasons and five positions, all at an fWAR of -1.8. Basically, he was a disaster at short and didn’t do enough offensively or on the bases (despite stealing nearly 50 bases) to merit any more of the Yankees’ collective patience.
But in 2014, the Twins and Yankees were headed in separate directions. The Yankees, who still had Mr. Jeter, mind you, were on the way to an 84-win season. They missed the postseason by five games but were still a heck of a lot better than the Twins, who lost 92 games for their fourth 90-loss season in a row. If any team was able to take a chance on Nunez, it might as well have been them.
Nunez got into 72 games for the Twins in 2014 and was basically replacement level while playing all over the diamond. Even still, the Twins tendered him and basically doubled his salary up to $1.025 million for 2015. But by this point he was going on 28, hadn’t done enough to really merit a further look, and appeared to be pretty much an end-of-the-bench entity for the Twins heading into what was expected to be another iffy season for the club.
In fact, there was even some talk about how much his termination pay would be if he was let go at the end of spring training. But the Twins stuck with him and both sides surprised a bit in 2015. The Twins won 83 games and were in the thick of the playoff race until the season’s final week, and Nunez played in 72 ballgames for the second season in a row and hit a respectable .282/.327/.431 while playing second and third base, shortstop, and some left field.
But without much of a defensive home, and some pretty important players in front of him in some of those spots, Nunez entered the 2016 season again with no clear path to playing time. In the team’s first 10 games, he got a grand total of two starts and just 11 plate appearances. But in his first start, on April 10 against Kansas City, he went 4-for-4, and the fun was fully underway. For a little over two weeks thereafter, Nunez hit over .400 and became an early-season cult hero on a team that was absolutely dreadful.
From early April on, it seemed like every night Nunez would pick up a hit or two, and eventually, he wormed his way into the starting shortstop job when Eduardo Escobar went on the disabled list. Every time it looked like regression was seeping in, he’d flip the switch back on with a few multi-hit games and get his batting average back up around .320 and his OPS further up into the .800s. Nothing about the man in conventional -- he still will have some of the weirdest plays and swings you’ll ever see on the baseball field -- but he was just flat out getting it done.
With the rule that every team must be represented in the All Star Game, Nunez was granted that honor as the sole Twin in San Diego, and while he barely played in the game, it was suggested that he was smiling from ear-to-ear pretty much the entire time.
And while his play has regressed in recent days -- he’s hitting just .235/.264/.306 in July, for instance -- there’s still a pretty decent sampling here that says the Giants are acquiring a pretty solid player. Over the last two seasons, Nunez has played 163 games (exactly 600 plate appearances), or virtually the equivalent of a full season. He’s hit .292/.326/.436 (105 OPS+) with 16 home runs, 29 doubles, and 35 steals while playing four different defensive positions.
FanGraphs’ defensive statistics suggest he’s played better defensively this year, but even if you don’t put too much stock into them -- and that’s fair -- you’re still looking at an above-average hitter with good speed (77.8 percent steal rate over last two season) who can give you a bit of a boost at traditionally weak offensive positions in the infield.
That kind of player has value.
Nunez appears likely to fill in for Matthew Duffy at third base for the time being for the Giants. Duffy hasn’t played since June 19, and the latest update on him is that he may start a rehab assignment soon. That’s bound to be an extensive deal since he’s been out over a month -- position players can rehab for up to 20 days -- and at that point Nunez will probably shift to more of a super utility role. Depending on how much of his regression sticks, he’ll settle in either as a capable utility player on the low side to a luxury on the high end, who can also spell Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford here and there as well.
Offensively, Nunez sort of fits in on the higher-average, lower-power Giants offense which on the whole is hitting .260/.332/.402 this season.
What’ll be interesting to watch is where he hits in the lineup, and how much, if at all, that affects his base stealing. Nunez led the American League with 27 steals prior to the trade and is going from the Twins (66 steals, 9th in the Majors) to the Giants (51 steals, 14th) who have run a bit less.
Of course, having the pitcher at the bottom of the order changes things a bit, but it seems unlikely that Nunez will reprise his role as leadoff hitter. Nunez batted leadoff a team-high 66 times for the Twins, while another former Twin Denard Span has pretty much locked down that role for the Giants, leading off 87 times in 102 games. A best guess is that Nunez will jockey for batting position with Crawford, who leads the Giants in number of times batting fifth, sixth, and seventh in the order.
Ultimately, Nunez is a pretty solid regular who should be a luxurious super utility guy who could even help in the outfield in a pinch -- and has one more year of club control -- and the Giants paid market rate for that kind of player. It’s a deal that works for both sides.