In which I praise Eduardo Nunez

The slump that holds back Cano
Hughes to start on Saturday
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For years, the Yankees employed a utility infielder basically because they had too, but they never really used the poor guy. Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez were in the primes of their careers and very rarely took a day off, so the reserve infielder was just kind of there for emergencies. Cano is still very much in his prime, but Jeter and A-Rod have slowed down as they’ve gotten into their mid-30’s. They’re getting more regular rest (even if it’s just a half-day as DH) and injured more frequently, so the backup infielder has become increasingly important.

Eduardo Nunez has been the primary infield fill-in this season, and he’s been surprisingly productive. Maybe it’s only surprising to me, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with low expectations for the backup infielder. In 214 plate appearances this season, Nunez has hit .273/.325/.407 with 16 steals in 21 attempts, a .330 wOBA that is about five percent better than league average. His strength is simply getting the bat on the ball; his strikeout (9.8%) and contact (89.6%) rates are both substantially better than the league average (18.4% and 80.9%, respectively). After walking in just 5.6% of his minor league plate appearances (5.2% above Single-A), Nunez has upped that to 7.0% this season. His defense at short and third (primarily) has been sketchy (UZR hates him with a passion), but he seems to have improved of late, particularly on throws. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting regular reps.

I think it goes without saying that Nunez has been the Yankees’ best utility infielder in quite some time, but just how much better? Let’s look back at the last few seasons and the guys the Yankees had coming off the bench whenever they needed to replace someone on the diamond…

2009 & 2010
Ramiro Pena: .253/.283/.305 … 3.8% BB … 16.3% K … 11-for-13 in SB attempts

h8 bunts. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

It was pretty surprising when the Yankees took Pena, a career .253/.311/.315 hitter at Double-A, north out of Spring Training in 2009, skipping the defensive specialist right over Triple-A. He performed about as well as could have been expected, flashing some leather and falling just short of his ZiPS projection (.249/.296/.332). Pena did end up back in Triple-A later in the 2009 season, giving way to trade deadline pickup Jerry Hairston Jr., who hit .237/.352/.382 in 93 PA with New York. Pena was the primarily utility infielder for all of 2010 though, with Kevin Russo and Nunez making short cameos.

2008
Wilson Betemit: .265/.289/.429 … 3.0% BB … 28.3% K … 0-for-1 in SB attempts

Before the days of Nick Swisher in right field, Betemit was the guy entrusted with resting the regular infielders. He definitely has some pop in his bat and showed it during his time with New York, clubbing 13 doubles and six homers in 189 PA during 2008 (a .164 ISO). The problem is that he was generally a statue on defense and Grade-A hacker incapable of putting together a tough at-bat, or so it seemed. He was also valueless on the bases. Cody Ransom made a late season cameo and won the heart of Ian O’Connor by hitting a homerun in each of his first two at-bats in pinstripes. He hit .302/.400/.561 in 51 PA late in the season.

Low socks A-Rod ... weird. (Flickr user Dog Company via Creative Commons license)

2007
Miguel Cairo: .252/.308/.318 … 6.6% BB … 16.7% K … 8-for-9 in SB attempts

Can you believe that Cairo is still playing? It’s crazy, and he’s actually performing quite well (.321 wOBA) for the Reds at age 37. Good for him. Anyway, Cairo was consistently ineffective for New York except for that ridiculous 2004 season when he took over the regular second base job thanks to his .336 wOBA. Cairo’s defense was about average, but the Yankees got tired of his act in 2007 and released him in mid-August. They had acquired Betemit at the trade deadline to assume backup infielder duties, and he hit .226/.278/.417 with four homers in 92 at-bats down the stretch.

* * *

Previous reserve infielders include Cairo and Nick Green (2006), Rey Sanchez and Andy Phillips (2005), and Enrique Wilson (2004). All of them, including the 2007-2010 crop above, were pretty terrible and certainly worse than what the Yankees are running out there now with Nunez. ZiPS projects Eduardo to hit .266/.307/.371 (.305 wOBA) with seven steals in nine attempts the rest of way, which seems reasonable if not a little disappointing. I’m still not 100% sold on Nunez as a future everyday player, but he’s certainly been better than I expected, and it’s come at a good time because the Yankees needed him more than anticipated.

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The slump that holds back Cano
Hughes to start on Saturday
  • Boo Radley

    Nunez has been a great fill in player. He would have been one of the heroes Sunday night had we held on. I can’t believe some people wanted to trade the farm for a 6 week fill in when we already had a good young one on the roster. Now he’s got more experience and we’ve held serve while A-Rod has been gone with no cost to the farm system.

    • Crime Dog

      I don’t remember anyone advocating selling the farm for a fill in.

      • Boo Radley

        I saw proposals for Wigginton and Aramis Rameriz that were really just unnecessary. Especially now that Chavez is back and A-Rod will be back soon. Where would that extra player have gone? To the bench with Jorge I guess. And Nunez would have been sent down to AAA where he doesn’t belong.

        • Crime Dog

          Eh, I put the Aramis Ramirez for fill in people along there with the people who talk about trading for Felix Hernandez

  • Monteroisdinero

    If I’m not mistaken, that pic was of a ST homerun against the Phillies the first weekend in March. I was there and it was a rope.

  • David, Jr.

    Thank you, Mike. What you say is exactly correct, particulary when looked at in the context of a young guy getting tossed into two key positions. He has held his own hitting, his speed is Gardner-like, and he is starting to clean up his fielding.

  • Rainbow Connection

    Just imagine if he were able to catch or throw a ball!

    • LarryM.,Fl.

      Give the kid a break. He belongs in the big leagues.

      • Rainbow Connection

        As a DH?

    • CP

      He catches the ball fine. It’s really just the throwing that’s a problem.

  • Crime Dog

    I think Nunez has exceeded my expectations this year. I still don’t think he’s an “everyday shortstop” but he’s a guy who can play 25-30 games at 2B, SS and 3B on a worse team, or fill in for whomever on this team. Plus, he has good speed off the bench as well as good contact skills, and there’s some value in that.

    • David, Jr.

      I think there are teams that would give their left nut to have him as a starter. I was watching the Sux game last night, and the Twins middle infielders are about the most anemic collection of .200 hitting butchers that you would ever find. They all had a AAAA look.

      • Crime Dog

        Yeah, I think Nunez would have an everyday job on 35-40% of teams in the league. But I think he’s best utilized in the role he has this season. Backup SS on a team where he’ll get his 200 ABs

        • MannyGeee

          I would go closer to 70% of the league. there are very few offensive minded shortstops in the league.

          Past Tulo, Reyes, Peralta, Hanley and maybe Asdrubal… I think just about any team would consider him. including Boston… Scutaro is not lighting the world on fire

          that said, his glove and arm still scares the hell outta me.

          • Crime Dog

            That’s why Im putting the number that low. I think managers would rather take 270/310/350 from their solid fielding SS than 280/330/400 (or whatever Nunez can give you) but a shaky at best arm

          • FIPster Doofus

            Maybe Asdrubal? He’s having one of the best seasons of any shortstops in the league. There’s no comparison between him and Nunez. You also left out Yunel Escobar and Starlin Castro, among others.

            • FIPster Doofus

              And I left out JJ Hardy. For shame.

    • bonestock94

      He absolutely can start daily if his performance now is indicative of what he can do. He won’t be Jeter 2.0 but he’s better than what a lot of the teams throw out there.

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    Nunez another homegrown guy who has been given a decent chance to play. Filling in for Arod and Jeter primarily has allowed the kid to grow offensively and defensively. There was a rough start but he’s doing much better. The brain power or baseball instincts are lagging behind a bit but it could be because of different positions. Example of this was Sunday when he attempted to field the bunt and did not get back to cover third as Mariano made the play, looked to third with no coverage and threw to first. We all know what happen quickly thereafter.

    But I for one was never enamored with GS’s player moves. I have enjoyed watching Nunez, Nova, Noesi and Gardner develop. Not saying homegrown is the only way but a good mixture is much more rewarding than an emptying of the farm system.

    Hopefully, patience with Hughes will be exhibited.

  • steve (different one)

    I have noticed a change in Nunez’s approach over the last few weeks. He seems to be taking some pitches and has drawn a few walks. I don’t know where to get data at such a granular level to confirm my impressions, so I’ll just ask if anyone else has noticed the same thing?

    • LarryM.,Fl.

      I have noticed more confidence from Nunez in the field and at the plate, especially. His bat will get better with time as he disciplines the strike zone.

      • Jim S

        BAD strike zone! Don’t do that again! You hear me? I’m not kidding!

        • LarryM.,Fl.

          Explain?

          • Jim S

            You said his bat would get better as he disciplines the strike zone, like one would discipline a child.

            You meant as he learns discipline, or as he develops a better eye for the strike zone.

            I played off of the sentence structure, and now the joke is ruined because I had to explain it. Carry on.

            • LarryM.,Fl.

              I understand your point but now I’m the one who is being disciplined. I thought it was doable as a sentence. I rather find a bear than argue over my writing abilities.

              • Jim S

                Wow. It was a joke. This is a blog. People are allowed to kid around.

                I find your points generally well thought out and well reasoned. But if you can’t take some jabbing, yeesh.

            • MannyGeee

              take away the plate’s xBox, that should take care of it.

          • Jim S

            Maybe it would have been better phrased(but yet still probably ruined) as:

            “BAD strike zone! Don’t do that again! You hear me? I’m not kidding!” — Nunez disciplines the strike zone.

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    I’ve always been a fan of Nunez, and he’s turning into a personal favorite. He puts the ball in play, steals bases, and is versatile on defense. Sure, overall he’s played like crap on defense, but he’s been better of late, and come postseason time he can become a very valuable weapon off the bench.

    • Cris Pengiuci

      Sure. He’s fast, an underdog, seems to be achieving and progressing well while being pushed into a starter’s role during injuries. If he were white, he’d be “gritty”. :-)

      • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

        so only white players can be “gritty”? Racist! lol

        • http://johnsterling.blogspot.com/ Xstar7

          Of course only white players can be gritty. That’s common knowledge.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I have liked Nunez since seeing him at Scranton. He has a very strong arm and accuracy will improve. He has been more selective at the plate and getting into better counts. He runs hard and is not afraid to fail. Once they find a helmet that stays on, he could be even better!

    Kudos to Mike for adjusting his eye towards Nunez. In honor of this I promise to praise Swish tonight during the game.

    • Jim S

      Oh man, I might have to tune in to the game thread for this!

      • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

        if there is a game. The My 9 curse my rear its ugly head again.

        • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

          *may

  • vin

    4 big things this season has taught us…

    Nunez has the ability to be a starting big league SS.
    Nova is a big league starter.
    Robertson looks more like a closer than a middle reliever.
    Noesi has the stuff to be a big leaguer.

    Nunez will not be the next Jeter, but he has significant value. He’s young, cheap, athletic, makes contact, and has respectable pop.

  • nsalem

    Not an everyday shortstop? I’m sure our opponents this weekend would love to have him as their everyday shortstop.

  • The Devil

    It’s f*ckin freezing down here!

  • Crime Dog

    One criticism of Nunez: Get a smaller helmet. Seriously. Falls off at least twice a game

  • Urban

    I haven’t been surprised by his bat. I thought he could provide some value on that side of the diamond. I am surprised by his defense. It goes beyond the throwing errors. His range has been much less than advertised and his instincts remain quite poor. He’s improved, but that’s only because he was so horrid early on. He requires a lot of work for someone who is in his mid-20s and has been playing ball for quite some time.

    • Pants Lendelton

      Yeah after almost 7 seasons of pro ball you’d figure his instincts would be better than what they are… I guess not.

    • 7commerce

      Typical NYY farmhand who comes to The Show lacking fundamentals–Gardy, for example, couldn’t bunt! No pitcher comes w/ a + CU.

  • Pants Lendelton

    Nunez also doesn’t look over matched at the plate surprisingly.

    I’d love to see him play some L.F/R.F from time to time but I suppose he’ll work on this during the offseason.

    • YankeesJunkie

      Honestly, he has enough speed and good enough arm that he could probably handle on three outfield position plus ever position in the IF outside of first and catcher. Making him into a super utility man would actually be a pretty good route for Nunez considering that he is cheap and hold his own offensively.

  • YankeesJunkie

    Nunez has easily exceeded my expectations as a fill in for both A-Rod and Jeter especially on the offensive side of the ball. However, there are still a couple things that concern me with his long time performance.

    1. Both his BB% and his ISO are career highs including everything that he did in the minors. I have a feeling that while the power may be something permanent I can’t see sustaining a 7% BB rate for considering that he is free swinger.

    2. His throwing arm is atrocious. While he has great arm strength when he has to put everything behind the ball on the throw the first base there is no telling where the ball is going to go. However, I will give him credit for taking something off his heater on plays that he has more time on which has led to more accurate throws. The fact of the matter is that he has still been the worst defender on the Yankee team this year and it has not necessarily been close.

    While Nunez has exceeded my expectations by no means should he be considered untouchable by the Yankee brass. Nunez on the other hand along with players like Noesi should be considered guys that can land Yankees cheap younger pitching obviously if the price is right. Nunez has been impressive thus far by I never see him being higher than a 1-2 WAR SS throughout his career which by no means should be considered a failure, but a success on the Yankee farm system.

  • Jorge

    Like the bat. Hate the defense. As much as Jeter is on the decline, the team is not going to have another everyday SS for several years. I actually think Nunez may be the biggest piece of tradebait on this team.

  • Tags

    Mike nice to see you finally come around on Nunez after bashing him for much of the season. A lot of writers and bloggers write about these kids they’ve never seen. Having been a Trenton Thunder fan since 2006 I’ve seen these kids come thru the system. And having seen their talent I haven’t been so quick to write them off. Like many did with Nunez and Gardner and Robertson. So not so quick to judge Mike!

  • Thomas Tu

    A-Rod needs to go back to low socks. I hate high socks with a passion.

    I’m glad Mo got rid of them after slaying my soul earlier in the season by wearing them.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    Nunez is good and will get better. That said as we are building a new (young) core, we, as Yankee fans must have patience with our young players as if they were our own children. Hugues, Nova, Noesi, Montero (if ever brought up) must get the benefit of the doubt as they develop. After all, life is a learning process. Therefore, when we boo these guys it only hurts their psyche and development.

  • Harvey

    Nunez is doing his job and doing it better then all the other players listed. Reading those names was fun and quite a flashback.
    Nunez is only going to get better. Imagine just how much he can learn about the game from Cano, Jeter and ARod-The players he is backing up so far in 2010.