When spring training of this season rolled around, hardly anyone in Birdland ever had any reason to know or think about Renato Núñez. The reason for this is a simple one: Núñez wasn’t even in the Orioles organization for spring training. He was decidedly not one of “our guys.”
Like many others in the disastrous season that just finished, Núñez got a chance when the team got desperate. Unlike many others, he performed decently enough to make you think that maybe, just maybe, Núñez deserves a regular role with the Orioles as they head into wherever it is they are headed in the near future.
Núñez actually spent his spring training with the Athletics, the organization that signed him out of Venezuela in 2010 when he was just 16 years old. He got a cup of coffee there in both 2016 and 2017, but in mid-April this year he landed on the waiver wire and was claimed... by the Rangers. Within a month, the Rangers dumped Núñez onto waivers as well and that’s when the Orioles snatched him up, stashing the third baseman at Triple-A Norfolk.
Even once he was in the Orioles organization, there wasn’t much reason to give a lot of thought to Núñez. Dan Duquette’s waiver wire fodder tends to come and go without making much of a mark. Núñez, though, went on to post some solid numbers over a couple of months with the Tides, batting .289/.361/.443 across 56 games there.
These are obviously not earth-shattering MVP-caliber numbers, especially considering they were only posted in the minors. Still, it’s better than what a lot of the players who shuffled through Norfolk this year were able to do there. When a hole opened up in the Orioles infield with the trade of Manny Machado, it was Núñez who got the call to come step into the third base spot that was vacated when Tim Beckham shifted back to his natural shortstop position.
This wasn’t the most exciting of the post-trade deadline call-ups since he wasn’t an existing O’s prospect coming up to fill a spot. It was more of an, “Eh, there’s nobody else, might as well play this guy.” There was an opportunity and the O’s decided to give Núñez a chance with that opening, playing him nearly every day from the time that he was called up until the end of the season.
If you formed your opinion of Núñez at the end of August, you would be forgiven for still not finding him exciting. Over his first month-plus with the O’s, Núñez batted .250/.333/.375 - not awful, but not enough power to move the needle. Couple that with the occasional defensive lapse and there wasn’t much there to make anybody think this guy had to stick around.
The month of September saw Núñez break out somewhat, posting an .891 OPS for the month. This raised his total batting line with the O’s to a much more respectable .275/.336/.445 mark. The only Oriole with at least 100 plate appearances to exceed that .781 OPS was Machado. This fact is depressing to dwell on, but no less true just because it’s not any fun to confront.
Obviously, the “real” Núñez isn’t going to show up next year and be as hot as he was for all of this September. Players can have a hot month and it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly Mike Trout. Because of expanded rosters, September success can be the most ephemeral of all.
It’s enough that Núñez has probably played his way into being the Opening Day third baseman next year. Well, maybe. The Orioles don’t have either a GM or a manager right now. We don’t know what either of those people will think when they come in and evaluate what’s already in the organization.
It could be that they decide any success Núñez had last year was a mirage. Maybe they will decide they want a player who’s got a better reputation for defensive ability. There is probably going to be a minor league free agent available with more defensive upside than Núñez, and possibly even one with more offensive upside, too. Barring either one of those things, though, Núñez seems like the guy at the end of next March.
Prospect Ryan Mountcastle could be along eventually to knock Núñez off of that spot. Mountcastle comes with his own question marks. You don’t have to look very hard to find a mainstream prospect writer who doesn’t think that Mountcastle is going to be able to stick at third base. That’s also going to be something for the new GM to evaluate.
Whatever decision is made about Mountcastle’s future at third base, he’s likely not going to displace Núñez to begin next season, at any rate. Núñez is almost certainly not the future at third base in Baltimore. He is the third baseman of right now. If he hits close to as well as he did in his third of a season of action with the team last year, that will be fine and he won’t be the player anyone complains about the most as the O’s limp towards whatever poor record they end up compiling next season.
Buck Showalter isn’t around any more to say one of his favorite phrases: “Never overlook an orchid when you’re searching for a rose.” If the Orioles are going to get back to the postseason, they’re going to need to find a lot of roses. There’s almost no chance of that happening in 2019, so Núñez is just the sort of orchid they can settle on for now. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even in the organization until May.