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The Orioles biggest spring training decision will come at third base

Which do you prefer? Renato Núñez’s bat or Rio Ruiz’s glove?

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Just about every position on the Orioles roster is up for grabs. That includes third base, where incumbent Renato Núñez has faced stiff competition from newcomer Rio Ruiz this spring. Both players entered 2019 with similar resumés, having been regarded as solid yet unspectacular prospects while bouncing between a couple of organizations before reaching the bigs for a few cups of proverbial coffee.

Núñez is coming off what could be considered his best season as a professional. The 73 major league games he played was a huge increase from the 17 he took part in between 2016 and ‘17. He spent 60 of those games as the Orioles third baseman, hitting .275/.336/.445 with seven home runs, 13 doubles, a 116 OPS+ and 113 wRC+. In a year full of disappointments, Núñez was one decision that worked out.

Ruiz has a bit less big league experience, just 72 total games over the last three seasons. The results have not been good in that short time: .189/.282/.302, four home runs, five doubles, 54 OPS+, 53 wRC+. Like Núñez, he’s still just 24 years old, and the Orioles were intrigued enough to kick the tires on the former fourth round pick (by new GM Mike Elias while with the Astros) by claiming him off waivers at the winter meetings in December.

Versatility has been a theme at Orioles camp. Many of the team’s infielders have moved all around the diamond. Núñez and Ruiz have been a part of the “musical positions” down in Sarasota. Both have still seen the majority of their time at the hot corner, but they have also played a few innings at first base. On the scale of usefulness, the ability to play first base is about as low as you can get. However, at least one of these players needs as much help in the field as he can get.

Núñez has never had a reputation as a particularly adept fielder. Prior to joining the O’s last season, the Athletics had attempted to make him into a first baseman or a corner outfielder just to get his promising bat in the lineup. They ultimately determined his offensive potential wasn’t enough to justify the move down the defensive spectrum. FanGraphs’s scouting report at the time gave him a below average 40 grade for his glove on the 20-80 scouting scale, although his arm was deemed an above average 60.

Fielding percentage is not the best way to analyze a fielder, especially based off of a small sample size like spring training. That’s lucky, or else Núñez’s four errors in just 16 total chances at third base this spring would be worrying. He was a bit better with the O’s during last regular season, committing eight errors on 129 chances. That’s a .946 fielding percentage though, which would have put him near the bottom of the league over an entire season. His career .897 fielding percentage at third base in the minors indicates that he may have actually over performed last year.

Advanced metrics liked Núñez’s glove work a bit better. His 0.0 DRS and 0.1 dWAR last year suggest he wasn’t costing the O’s with his glove. His 3.9 UZR implies he was actually helping, at least a little bit. At the same time, those are nowhere near Gold Glove level performances, and his proneness to errors has left him vulnerable this spring.

Ruiz is not going to be mistaken for Manny Machado either, but scouts felt he had the potential to be an average fielder (50 grade, according to FanGraphs), and his .956 fielding percentage at the position down on the farm is a massive improvement over Núñez’s numbers. That has been reflected in his short time at the major league level, where he has 0 DRS, a 0.0 dWAR and 2.8 UZR over just 358.1 innings of work. Again, fairly pedestrian but passable.

Offensively, Núñez would seem to have the advantage, but it’s not a massive difference. The two have played a similar number of minor league games (Ruiz 776, Núñez 757). During that time, Ruiz has gotten on base more (.263/.344/.404), but Núñez has hit for more power (.265/.321/.466). On top of that, Nunez has had at least a modicum of success in the bigs, which has so far evaded Ruiz.

Speed does not really factor into the game of either third baseman. Ruiz has stolen 24 bases as a minor leaguer, but he has also been caught 16 times, making it something he would be better off eliminating from his repertoire altogether. Núñez had a 75-percent success rate on stolen bases down on the farm, but only swiped 15 bags in 20 attempts. For what it’s worth, Ruiz currently owns a career 1.2 BsR compared to Núñez’s -2.9, but both numbers are from very short major league stints.

If spring training results factor into the decision-making at all, then Ruiz has the edge. He is yet to make an error in the field and owns a .308/.424/.615 batting line in the Grapefruit League. Meanwhile, Núñez has experienced the defensive troubles mentioned earlier and has just a .217/.269/.478 batting line while facing slightly easier competition than Ruiz, according to Baseball Reference’s “Opponent Quality” metric.

There is the natural thought that Ruiz, a left-handed hitter, and Núñez, a right-handed hitter, could platoon at the position in 2019. It’s possible. Ruiz has hit significantly better against right-handed pitching over his last four minor league seasons while Núñez has tended to prefer southpaws, although that hasn’t carried into the majors, where he has a .259/.330/.432 line against righties and a .231/.274/.356 against lefties.

The issue with a platoon at third base made up of two players that have limited position flexibility is that the team could simply run out of roster spots. Their ability to play first base is redundant on a team with Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini. Would keeping two third baseman stop them from also holding onto Drew Jackson or an extra pitcher? If it would, it’s probably not be worth it just to keep two players with similar flaws and limited upside.

If only one of them can make the opening day roster, Ruiz would be the safer bet. He’s an adequate defender for a team with a pitching staff that needs as much help as they can get. The Orioles new manager, Brandon Hyde, has harped on getting back to basics and playing error-free baseball this spring. Ruiz is more capable of that making that happen than Núñez while the difference between their two offensive profiles isn’t enough to make up the gap.