Written By Tom Schreier (ColdOmaha.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
I think I’m the same player. I just have had more opportunities to play, so you can prove more.
— Eduardo Nunez before a June 5 game against the Tampa Bay Rays
The race for who will represent the Minnesota Twins at this year’s All-Star Game looks like it’s coming down to two players: Joe Mauer and Eduardo Nunez. There’s a case to be made for left-handed reliever Fernando Abad, an offseason pickup who owns a 0.95 ERA (467 ERA+) and a 1.017 WHIP in nearly 20 innings pitched.
But if Abad wins it, it’s more or less an indictment on the rest of the Twins team. He’d be a fit for the American League roster — relievers are always in demand — but it would mean that there aren’t any great options among everyday position players.
Until this season, Nunez didn’t qualify as either an everyday player nor did he have a specific position. Labeled as the heir apparent to Derek Jeter in New York, Nunez signed with the Yankees as an international free agent in 2004. “He came up advertised to the heir to Jeter at his position, as a shortstop,” said general manager Terry Ryan on June 5. “He can really throw. He can really run. He’s athletic. He’s got the agility.
“It’s always been consistency ever since he’s been a young man over there with the Yankees, and he’s getting an opportunity to play the game here, and he’s done quite well.”
He had 213 and 204 plate appearances, respectively, in his first two seasons with the Twins. He already has 195 this season. “I wouldn’t have thought coming out of Spring Training that I’m looking for days to get Nunez a day off,” said manager Paul Molitor. “That’s kinda how it’s changed.”
“I think I had so many off over the last few years, that I don’t need one now,” offers Nunez, in jest.
Nunez owns a triple slash line of .335/.363/.516 through 47 games this season. He has played 24 games at shortstop, 19 at third, five at second and three as the designated hitter. Asked if he could become an everyday position player, Molitor demurred. “Slippery slope, as far as trying to project a guy that’s been in that role, that has played well for a couple months,” he said. “If you base it on how he’s performed, it’s easy to speculate that he could be on track to be one of those guys and remove the utility label.
“But I think it’s too early for that. I mean, it would be great for our team, it would be great for his career, and he’s just kinda riding it right now.”
Simply put, the question with Nunez is how sustainable his current play is. Not everybody gets labeled as the heir to a generational player like Jeter, but very few players are able to become an everyday position player at age 28 after spending most of their career in a utility role. Molitor struggled to come up with an example of a player who has, but both he and Ryan have not ruled it out.
“Well, at 28 years old, when he has not really had an opportunity, I don’t think you want to put any shackles on just because he’s 28,” said Ryan. “He’s very athletic, for sure, and I’m not sure you would worry about his ability to have the stamina and durability to play 150 games — he’s certainly athletic.”
There’s no Jeter in Minnesota, and while Eduardo Escobar, another converted utility player, was the favorite to land the position coming into the season, he’s been injured and Nunez has been the better player. If Nunez can lock down the job, he’d be flanked by Trevor Plouffe at third and Brian Dozier at second — two converted shortstops.
Ideally, Nunez locks down short, allowing Minnesota to fill out their infield with Miguel Sano eventually taking over in the hot corner, Dozier locking down second — if he can bounce back from a tough start to the season after being named an All-Star last year — and Mauer at first. “Shortstop, that’s the position I’ve played all my life,” said Nunez when asked if he was partial to third or short. “I was longing to play in New York, but because they have so many guys, I didn’t have any chance.”
“He can play short; he can play third,” said Ryan. “I don’t know if there would be a whole lot of difference between short and third with him.”
Nunez says he is close with his teammates, and knows that if he plays well, it could cost one of them their job. “They’re my friends, and I wish the best for them. And I hope they wish the same for me, but I hope at the same time, competition,” he said. “The best player at that time is gonna play, and I hope they understand that.”
The issue with electing Nunez as an All-Star is that he may regress in the second half, as Dozier did, and he would be rewarded for a strong first half more than anything. Mauer is more likely to sustain the pace he’s on (.281/.388/.412) through 55 games played, given his track record as a high-average, on-base hitter.
He’s not a sexy pick, however, as his production was taken for granted until it dropped off following a concussion at the end of the 2013 season. He appears to have recovered, but due to a position switch where he is no longer an anomaly as a strong hitter as he was at catcher, as well as his lack of power, it’s easier for people to find faults rather than stress the importance of on-base percentage and celebrate his bounce-back year.
Whether or not Nunez is named an All-Star really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It would be a personal accomplishment to him and a reward for the Twins front office that not only stuck with Nunez through two offseasons when they also had two other utility players — Escobar and Danny Santana — that were getting more playing time.
Beyond that, the Twins have been under the gun for recent ill-fated trades that have lingering effects — Denard Span for Alex Meyer, Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, etc. — and dealing career minor-leaguer Miguel Sulbaran, the player to be named later in the Drew Butera trade, for Nunez turned out to be a swindle. “We’ve made our fair share of some that have worked,” said Ryan, “and some that not.”
When choosing between Mauer, who is coming off of two poor seasons and doesn’t do anything flashy, and Nunez, it’s human nature to choose the latter. He’s a new face. He’s very likeable. He’s having an unexpected breakout year. And he runs so damn fast that he can’t keep his helmet on his head.
Whether or not this sudden burst of production sustains itself over the long term is usually not a priority when it comes to All-Star voting. And, frankly, nobody is quite sure how Nunez fits in with the team over the next few years. “Now whether that this is gonna be short-term or long-term in terms of his future it just kinda plays itself out,” said Molitor. “I’m not sure what’s gonna happen.”
“All of a sudden he’s got a chance, and he’s doing enough there to keep getting opportunity,” added Ryan. “Let’s see where he takes us.”
As for Nunez, he says he has worked hard to get to this point, and that being named an All-Star would give him recognition throughout the league. “In your dreams, everybody wants to go to the All-Star Game. That’s the dream for all players, to be in that game,” he said. “To be able to perform like that, it will change your life, it will change your career. People will see you differently.”
A guy who says he’s the same player he’s been all along is just asking for one more opportunity.
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