There was a touching moment early in last Thursday’s game involving Eduardo Nunez, Joe Girardi, and an errant first inning throw. After committing an error at second base that cost the Yankees a pair of runs, Nunez came back to the bench dejected and – as the broadcasting booth noted – Joe Girardi made a point of walking all the way across the dugout to make sure Nunez was all right. Girardi is “protective” of Nunez and the team has “big plans” for the kid, or so said Michael Kay and co.
Ever since Nunez was brought to the big leagues, the consensus throughout the New York sports media, in the broadcast booth, among casual fans, and especially among Yankees management has been as such. As a result of Nunez’s interesting combination of raw skill, his speed and strength and arm, it is generally accepted that he will have a major role with the team going forward. Though criticism has been written of Nunez here and elsewhere, the attraction persists.
And why not? Nunez is hitting .385 on the season with a .433 OBP, even after an 0-for-4 last night. He’s struck out only once in 26 at bats and has three stolen bases in three attempts. At 24-years-old, Nunez is showing true offensive growth, growth that has eluded him for the most part over his first two Major League seasons after an impressive minor league career. Nobody is expecting this kind of offensive performance from him going forward. But it’s encouraging. What isn’t encouraging is Nunez’s infield defense at this juncture. Despite a strong arm and solid range, Nunez is error prone – a pair on the season, ten times as many last year, and a career record of -13 defensive runs saved between shortstop and third base.
That’s a problem. Even those among us who like Nunez would be hard pressed to see his bat playing well at third base in the short run, and pushing his offensive skill set further down the defensive spectrum is a hard pill to swallow. Nunez’s defense will likely improve. Maybe it already has. In a very small sample size (essentially insignificante when it comes to defensive metrics) Nunez has a 1.1 UZR on the season between three infield positions. But there are still notable gaps in the youngsters skill set. The Yankees want to get Nunez’s bat in the lineup and anyway with no other capable middle infield replacement on the roster, and with a regular starter injured, they really have no choice. So where can the Girardi pencil Nunez’s name into the lineup so as to optimize his value to the team?
Last week, Joel Sherman of the New York Post proposed that Eduardo Nunez be named the temporary starter in left field while Brett Gardner recovers from injury. Sherman argues that all other potential replacements have little value to the Yankees in the long run and that Nunez deserves a shot. The idea of Nunez playing the outfield is often batted around. He’s been discussed as a potential replacement for Nick Swisher after the season and even spent some time in the corner outfield last year. The idea makes some logistical sense. He’s fast and has a strong arm. The outfield would cover up his most pressing defensive liabilities and allow him to best utilize his defensive assets. There’s a much greater margin of error making throws from the outfield than from shortstop. Yet Eduardo has played 18 innings in the outfield over the course of his professional career, all with the big club. The move would be unprecedented and risky.
But maybe Nunez should spend some time in left field. The question is really two fold. First, is playing Nunez in the outfield in his best interest developmentally and should the Yankees care? Second, does putting Nunez in the outfield make sense for the Yankees as currently constructed?
I’ve been critical of Nunez in the past but ultimately he is a talented young player, cost controlled and versatile, and his development should be in the best interest of the Yankees franchise. I tend to think Nunez’s greatest supporters within the front office and within the media get just a bit carried away. Nunez is not yet a viable replacement for, say, Nick Swisher. He also has a long ways to go before we start discussing succession plans at short. He’s still a valuable utility player, he still has an interesting skill set, and he’s still hitting like his life depends on it. So from that perspective, his development matters.
If his development matters, the outfield is worth a shot. Nunez may some day develop into a capable defensive infielder. If he does, and if his bat is as advertised, he’d be a very valuable starting player and potentially an heir to Derek Jeter‘s throne. But Jeter is nowhere near done and Nunez is nowhere near the defensive infielder he’d need to be for his bat to play on an everyday basis. The Yankees have plenty of similarly gifted middle infielders in the system anyway. We just don’t know where the shortstop position will be in three years. Nunez would probably be a better defensive outfielder. Versatility never hurt anyone and with Swisher’s contract up at the end of the season it makes sense for the Yankees to start developing contingencies. I don’t think Nunez’s bat is going to play in a corner outfield spot, but so what?
With that being said, Nunez is not Micheal Pineda. He’s very unlikely to become a franchise player and the 2012 Yanks are really good. At the end of the day, management has to make decisions that work for this team in the short and long run. The more pressing question, then, is whether Eduardo Nunez can help the Yankees in the outfield as of today, with Gardner down, or if Swisher or Curtis Granderson missed time in the future. The answer, I think, is yes.
Joe Girardi seems to have developed a bit of a lineup formula in Gardner’s absence. Against left-handers, Andruw Jones takes Gardner’s spot in left. Against right-handers, Raul Ibanez does likewise. If an infielder needs a day off, Nunez or Eric Chavez take their spot in the field. Otherwise, one of the pair will DH, as Nunez did last night. That makes some sense. Nunez has struggled in the field but his bat is hot. If he’s your ninth best hitter but you don’t need to give an infielder a half-day, put Nunez at DH. Andruw Jones is a plenty capable left fielder, even at this point in his career, and there is no guarantee that Nunez would provide any defensive relief.
Against right-handers, the majority of all Major League pitchers, there is certainly a case for putting Nunez in the outfield. After all, he’s usually already in the lineup anyway. At that point it’s not a question of whether his bat will “play” at one position or another, but a question of how best to align your defense. Raul Ibanez is a terrible defensive outfielder – make no mistake about that. Nunez is the only backup middle infielder on the team and so he’s going to be asked to play those positions frequently. But if it’s a question of giving an infielder a half-day, maybe Joe Girardi should wait until Andruw Jones is in the lineup. Maybe Nunez should play left instead of Ibanez, and Ibanez should DH instead of Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. Doing that will not only improve the infield defense in the short term, it will improve the outfield defense and give the Yankees a chance to see Nunez further develop his utility skills.
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