Every incarnation of the Yankees has its polarizing players. For some reason, swaths of fans flock to disparage certain players, while others rush to their defenses. In the mid-00s A-Rod was perhaps the most polarizing player on the Yankees. Elite player? Sure. But he was portrayed as a bad teammate — one who, according to so many fans, would never win a World Series with the Yankees. While A-Rod is still polarizing in some ways, it’s not nearly to the level it was before 2009. Now fans are out to fry smaller fish.
While Nick Swisher has his detractors, he is not the most polarizing player on the Yankees. No, that distinction belongs to Eduardo Nunez, a mere utility infielder. His potential — Baseball America ranked him their No. 8 Yankees prospect before last season — tantalizes some. His on-field blunders, including 20 errors in under 1,000 defensive innings last season, infuriates others. There appears to be little gray area in between.
Love him or hate him, though, the Yankees clearly think he can be part of their future. They’re trying to get him as much playing time as possible this year, using their lack of a regular DH to rotate players and get Nunez time in the field. The idea is to determine his value to them in the future, which they cannot do if he’s playing in AAA or getting irregular reps in the majors. For his part, Nunez is making the most of the opportunity.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dan Barbarisi writes about Nunez’s desire to succeed Derek Jeter as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop. He certainly gave his all this off-season, joining Robinson Cano bright and early for all-day workouts. In the process Cano has altered Nunez’s view of what it takes to be a big leaguer. For Nunez — whom Barbarisi describes as having “physical ability, smarts and talent” — it could be just the wake-up call he needs to take the next step.
The story actually comes full-circle in terms of polarizing Yankees. A-Rod, who polarized like none other early in his Yankees career, once took a young Cano under his wing. At a time when Cano’s focus was waning, A-Rod showed him the path to greatness. Cano has since put in his work, and the results are visible. Now Cano has turned his own attentions towards Nunez. Can Cano have the same effect on his protege as A-Rod had on his?
Replacing Jeter is no small task. There’s not only the legendary shoes that Nunez has to step into, but there is the sheer ability that Jeter possesses even to this day. His skills in decline, Jeter has figured out a way to hit better than most of his peers at an age when most of them have declined to the point of on-field uselessness. Nunez’s hard work doesn’t guarantee his ability to step into that role, but it does give him another leg up. He’ll need every one of them if he’s to one day become the Yankees’ starting shortstop.
Ben’s Take: I read the Barbarisi article this morning and had a few thoughts of my own considering the way last night’s game played out. Joe Girardi removed A-Rod for Nunez as a pinch-runner in the 8th, and Nunez took over at third base in the 8th. He nearly threw away a grounder during the Orioles’ half of the inning. When the Yankees took the lead in the 10th, Girardi removed Nunez for Eric Chavez, a superior fielder.
On the one hand, the move made sense. Chavez in his prime was a Gold Glove third baseman with a stellar arm, and he’s the guy you would want manning the hot corner when outs are at a premium. On the other hand, the Yankees removed their primary back-up infielder for defensive purposes late in the game last night. I don’t think I had ever seen that happen before.
To me, then, the question becomes: What do you do with Eduardo Nunez? The Yanks clearly have high hopes for the future, and he has a lot of raw ability. Yet, he’s become a worrisome liability in the field, not quite at the Chuck Knoblauch level but not a guy who has earned late-inning trust. The Yanks want to keep him at the Big League level, but just maybe he’d be better off playing the infield everyday in the minors while working on his throwing. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Nunez or the Yanks.