When it comes to rebuilds, there are no true milestones. Terms like “phase one” or “second step” are arbitrary. Have the Orioles made progress since hiring Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde to captain the team? Yes. Are they a good baseball team yet? No. For many, and that likely includes Elias and Hyde, those are the only two questions that matter.
Still, as a team evolves, so do the decisions that the ballclub must make. Back in 2019, the Orioles were hard pressed to spend any extra money. Flash forward to present day, and the Birds have picked up the $3.5 million option for José Iglesias’s and claimed a defense-first infielder that’s due a raise in arbitration. The Orioles are not players in free agency, but they are no longer saving at all cost.
The slight step forward could bode well for Renato Núñez. Núñez is arbitration eligible for the first time and due a significant raise from the $578,000 he would have received for a 162-game season in 2020.
It’s been a while since the Orioles had a winning season, but even longer since they had a shortage of players like Núñez. The plus-power, low-on-base first base/DH surplus predates the Orioles ill-advised signing of Chris Davis. So why, with Davis still under contract, would the Orioles spend a dollar more on Núñez when they have top prospect Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini returning next season?
I’m glad you asked.
The Orioles may not have lofty goals for next year, but they are trying to win games. Simply put, Núñez can help them do that.
There is no reason to expect anything of value from Davis. He will take up a roster spot until the O’s finally decide to move on, but that is it. Mountcastle, on the other hand, will carry high expectations into next season. The 23-year-old may still be working on his defense, but Baltimore appears willing to play him at first or in left field.
The return of Mancini will mark an outstanding accomplishment and a feel-good story for all, but there is unfortunately no guarantee that he will be ready to go on Opening Day. There is no point in speculating about his health, but it’s Baltimore’s duty to plan for multiple scenarios.
So there may be room for Núñez after all, but is he worth bringing back? Spotrac projects that Núñez could receive $3 million for a full season. Even with the current financial challenges in baseball, that number should not elicit an immediate “no way.” It’s less than three times the projected $10 million that prompted the O’s to send away Jonathan Villar last year.
Núñez posted a respectable .256/.324/.492 slash line over 52 games last season. The 26-year-old tallied 12 homers and drove in 31 runs. Núñez started 28 games at first, served as the designated hitter 21 times and even worked in a couple starts at the hot corner. His defense, while not outstanding, did not prevent him from posting an above average 0.4 WAR. Núñez slumped late like just about everyone of his teammates, but his .276/.342/.514 in August represents a presence in Baltimore’s lineup.
In the past, the Orioles have used the DH slot to rest players like Iglesias or keep a hot-hitting catcher like Pedro Severino in the lineup. Núñez can handle first base when Brandon Hyde needs the spot in the lineup, but Baltimore can begin the season with Núñez serving as its “primary” DH. For what it’s worth, Núñez slashed .284/.348/.519 when serving as the designated hitter.
The Orioles saved a boatload of money (at least $14 million) by not having to pay Davis for a full season. Unfortunately, the potential for another shortened season will keep Davis around, but he should not factor into the DH conversation. DJ Stewart has flashed potential, but has done little to lockdown a spot outside of one-week stint where he used a bat made from a lightning-struck tree in Nebraska.
The Orioles may still decide to move on from Núñez. They may need his roster spot to protect a prospect in the Rule-5 draft, or maybe they believe they can find similar production elsewhere. Still, Núñez hit 31 home runs in 2019. There is room for him in the lineup right now, not to mention an additional hole at third base if he could manage the defense.
Baltimore can negotiate with Núñez and easily afford $2-3 million on a one-year deal. I for one would like to see what Renato has to offer in his age-27 season. Do you agree? Let us know below!