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Renato Nunez performed up to modest expectations in 2020 — no better, no worse

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With the Orioles’ minor league pipeline starting to deliver some promising talent to the big league level, is Renato Nunez not long for Baltimore?

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
Orioles 1B/DH Renato Nunez circles the bases after hitting a home run.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

His time in Baltimore may not come out to a full two seasons worth of games, but it sure feels like we have gotten to know Renato Nunez pretty well over the years. He has played 263 games as an Oriole since joining the team during the 2018 season and in that time, he has a .248/.313/.451 triple slash line.

It’s easy to forget that Nunez — a career .265/.321/.466 minor league hitter — is still relatively young. He doesn’t turn 27 until April 4th of next year, so on paper he should just be entering his peak performance years. But up to this point he has been a one-dimensional player.

He does not hit for a high average, but he can hit the ball hard. He’s also a streaky hitter, the kind that can go on a home run binge over the course of one week and then go cold at the plate the next several. Plus, he strikes out a lot and walks very little.

So what exactly were expectations for Nunez heading into the 2020 season? Depends who you ask. My first thought can be summed up in two words — cheap power. Another expectation, or perhaps more of a hope, was for Nunez to make strides with plate discipline and fielding, but that unfortunately was not the case.

Due to unforeseen circumstances like Trey Mancini’s illness and Chris Davis’ injury/poor performance, Nunez played the field — including 28 games at first base — more than originally anticipated.

While he registered some improvements in certain advanced fielding metrics in 2020 as compared to 2019, it was still a struggle in the field for Nunez. He had a UZR of -0.2 and UZR/150 of -1.4 at first base this season, according to Fangraphs.

The rest of Nunez’s 2020 performance — power-hitting — was basically right on par with preseason expectations too. He led the team in home runs (12) while ranking fifth on the ballclub in OPS (.816) and fourth in SLG (.492).

He had a hard hit percentage of 36.4% this season, which was right in line with his figures from the past couple years: 40.8% in 2019 and 36.5% in 2018. This season he set a career high in OPS+ (121) and also barrel% (12.1). He is in good company with that last statistic because the only other two players in MLB with a 12.1 barrel% in 2020 were the Milwaukee Brewers’ Christian Yelich and the Boston Red Sox Rafael Devers.

The best month of the season for Nunez was August, when he hit .276/.342/.514 with seven home runs. September was a different story, with Nunez’s triple slash falling to .227/.301/.485.

As far as on-base skills, Nunez does not walk much, as evidenced by his career .313 on-base percentage and the .324 mark he put up in that department his past season. He strikes out a lot too. Nunez struck out 64 times in 52 games this year. If he had continued on that pace over the course of a full season, he would have had 192 K’s in 156 games.

Given Nunez’s talent and contract status, it is doubtful that he will have a role when the Orioles are good again in maybe two to four years. The team has plenty of capable 1B/DH types who also happen to be younger and/or have higher ceilings.

Let’s also not forget that Nunez was originally a Dan Duquette acquisition back in 2018, so as his price tag goes up we will see at what point the price is wrong for current GM Mike Elias. It will also be interesting to see how solid Nunez’s spot on the team is once additional Elias recruits reach the big league club.

Another reason the Birds may not be willing to pay up is because Nunez’s best position is DH. He even hit better this year when in the lineup at DH (.867 OPS) as opposed to first base (.811 OPS),

Nunez’s full salary the past few seasons has been in the high 500,000s. He made a prorated amount in 2020 — $214,074 — due to the COVID-19 shortened season, but is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason and due to make an estimated $3 million in 2021, according to Spotrac.

So while Nunez has been able to maintain his power profile at the plate over the past few seasons with the Orioles, we have reached the point where his contract is likely to get more expensive as each year goes by. It wouldn’t be outside of the realm of possibility for the O’s to trade him in the next couple years, or even non-tender him if his salary gets too high before he’s first eligible for free agency in 2025.