When the Orioles called Renato Nunez up from Norfolk last month, it was a name unknown to many O’s fans. Who is this guy playing a position that’s been held down by Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., and Manny Machado?
Nobody is expecting Nunez to become one of those guys, but he spent many years as a top prospect and was victimized by a roster crunch. The Orioles are handling this aspect of the rebuild correctly by letting a player with untapped potential try to figure it out at the top level. So far, it’s looking pretty good.
Despite being only 24 years old, Nunez has been in professional baseball for eight years. He was signed out of Venezuela by the Athletics as a 16-year-old. After two seasons in the lowest levels of the minors, he made it to A ball in 2013. He was in AA in 2015 and spent 2016 and 2017 in AAA. Nunez got a cup of coffee with the Athletics in each of those seasons. While signing young international players can be very beneficial, it can also present roster problems when players take a while to develop. Nunez is a great example of that. He was out of options coming into the 2018 season, which paved his way to the Orioles.
Shortly after being signed, Nunez established himself as one of the better power hitters in the Oakland organization. His 19 home runs in 2013 opened eyes throughout the scouting world; he rocketed up prospect rankings following that campaign. He has since hit 33, 25, 27, and 29 home runs each season in the minors. It is that raw power that propelled him to status as the Athletics’ #4 prospect going into the 2016 season.
But as any O’s fan knows, power at the expense of contact and on-base skills can be frustrating to watch. Despite hitting lots of dingers, Nunez has posted sub-par on-base percentages. His OBP during his last three seasons in the minor leagues were .332, .307, and .315. A scouting report from Eric Martins, his hitting coach at AAA Nashville, says that plate discipline and the inability to work walks consistently is the reason for that. ““When he puts his mind to it, and it will come in bunches, he’ll walk. He might walk two-three times a game for a week and get a couple of hits and you think, ‘okay, there it is’, and then all of a sudden, there he goes swinging at another pitch above his head and waving at a first pitch slider and rolling it over to the third baseman. It just makes you want to pull your hair out.” Sound familiar, O’s fans?
Primarily a third baseman his entire minor league career, Nunez was never thought to be a great defender. He made an eye-popping 30 errors in 202 chances during his first professional season in the Dominican Summer League. Nowhere to go but up, right? Scouting reports agreed that while Nunez had plenty of arm strength, he probably didn’t project as an MLB third baseman. Scouts said that his footwork was poor and that he lacked the instincts necessary for the hot corner.
Loads of power but defense and on-base skills that need work; in a word, Nunez was, and still is, a very “raw” prospect. In eight minor league seasons, Nunez slashed .265/.321/.466 and swatted 135 home runs. Oakland’s decision to expose him to waivers was because of a roster crunch. Matt Chapman was clearly the third baseman of the future and first base and corner outfield spots were accounted for. He was claimed by Texas in April. On May 13, he was claimed by the Orioles in a move that did not gain much attention. After spending time at Norfolk, and posting an .804 OPS there, he was called up to Baltimore on July 20 when Chris Tillman was DFA’d.
Since then, the O’s have been doing what a rebuilding team should do: giving playing time to a recent top prospect. Interesting, Nunez has been the opposite of what he’s been his entire career and what scouting reports advertised him as. Yes, the sample size we’re talking about is 72 at bats. But his very impressive OBP of .370 is far better than any mark he’s posted since 2012 in rookie ball. That is due in part to what appears to be increasing plate discipline. His 2018 walk rate (in the minors and with the O’s) is nearly 10%. It was 8.82% in 2017 and 5.64% in 2016. That is progress.
Defensively, Nunez doesn’t look like the player who committed an error in 15% of his chances in rookie ball. He doesn’t have great foot speed and isn’t the smoothest athlete. But the metrics have rated him favorably during his time in Baltimore. According to Fangraphs, he has saved two runs defensively since joining the O’s. Baseball Reference rates his defensive WAR at 0.2 We were told that Nunez was not good defensively. So far, he’s been slightly above average.
While he’s been getting on base at a career-best rate and playing solid defense, Nunez isn’t doing the one thing he’s always done: hit long balls. In those 72 at bats as an Oriole, he has just one home run. But his slugging percentage is a decent .444. That is fueled by eight doubles. Given that he has hit for power for years, some of those doubles should turn into homers eventually. The Orioles would almost certainly sacrifice some of that power if his OBP can stay above .350.
Is there any possibility that Nunez is the third baseman on the next good Orioles team? The current composition of the O’s farm system helps him. Ryan Mountcastle is currently a third baseman, but most scouts agree that he doesn’t project as one. Jean Carlos Encarnacion, acquired in the Kevin Gausman trade, is the organization’s #15 prospect. But the major leagues are far off for the 20-year-old currently playing in Delmarva. Rylan Bannon, acquired for Manny Machado, is their #22 prospect. Many scouts say he projects as a second baseman or utility infielder.
With it looking unlikely that a farmhand will push him off of third base, Nunez controls his own destiny. Baltimore offers him a great opportunity to fulfill his top prospect potential. Does he have it in him? The former coach quoted above also said about Nunez: “By the time he’s 25-26 years old, whether it is with us or someone else, he’s going to put it together. He really is, because he is good at what he does.” Let’s hope that happens in an Orioles uniform.
We can’t get too excited about what a player has done in 72 at bats. But Renato Nunez is a former top prospect who has worked on and improved his deficiencies. If the home runs start flying, we could be looking at a nice asset for the Orioles.