For the first time since 2001, and just the second time during Derek Jeter‘s tenure, there will be a different starting shortstop on opening day. Back in 2001, it was Luis Sojo getting the nod while the captain began the season on the disabled list. Prior to that and thereafter, Jeter has been the stalwart at the position since his rookie year in 1996. Now, with Jeter needing further time to recover from his fractured ankle last October, Eduardo Nunez will get the go on Monday.
Jeter’s injury situation in 2013 is much different than in 2001. Of course, there was a huge age difference. But this time, there is a lot more uncertainty as to when Jeter will return, and how frequently he’ll be able to man the position. Like it or not, Nunez will be seeing a significant amount of playing time at short this season, even when Jeter returns. Quite frankly, it was a bit surprising the Yankees didn’t try to bring in a more reasonable insurance plan, but that ship has sailed (for now).
Over the past few seasons, the Yankees’ love affair for Nunez has grown extremely frustrating. Despite showing no true ability to hit (.272/.318/.384, 88 wRC+ in 491 PAs), abominable fielding (no need for stats to exemplify), the organization continues to give him opportunities. Essentially, the lone redeeming quality Nunez has shown is his speed on the basepaths, swiping 38 bags in 46 attempts (82.6%).
Is there any reason to be optimistic about Nunez? Last month, Chris wondered if there was any hope for Nunez’ defense, but still concluded that (unsurprisingly) the odds are stacked against him. Nonetheless, the Yankees have worked on his throwing motion this spring, hoping for a solution. Maybe that helps to an extent, but you can probably still anticipate plenty of souvenirs in the seats behind first base. Looking at it from a glass half full perspective, you can be sure that Nunez will get to more balls than Jeter. Jeter’s range has been subject to scrutiny throughout his career, so a younger and more athletic Nunez should at least have the opportunity to convert more grounders into outs, perhaps making up for some of his defensive miscues.
What about his offense? In 67 Spring Training plate appearances, he’s hit .293/.373/.362, with an opponent quality of 9.3 (8=AAA, 10=MLB). While it’s nice that he’s performed well against pretty decent pitching quality, I still don’t want to read too much into spring stats. In 2012, he was effective in 100 PAs: .292/.330/.393, which I along with any other Yankees supporter would sign up for right now. However, he’ll probably perform more along the lines of his 2011 line: .265/.313/.385, in 338 PAs. ZiPS projects him to be slightly worse than that, forecasting the same batting average, but .008 less in OBP and .022 less in SLG.
The biggest issue with Nunez’ offense is that he hits the ball in the air far too often, especially in the infield. In his big league career, 23.4% of batted balls were infield pop ups. Not only is this atrocious for any player, but it is especially upsetting for a guy with good speed. Nunez’ legs best would be utilized as more of a ground ball hitter. If he continues to hit the ball straight up with such frequency, he’ll always be the career .308 wOBA guy that he is. Trying to be optimistic once again, but perhaps there’s upside here if he can start beating the ball into the dirt.
Overall, it’s really hard to expect anything from Nunez, other than a handful of collective facepalms from the Yankees fanbase. Over a full season, just about all projection systems see him as roughly a 1 win player. Not that Jeter was going to repeat his 3 WAR performance from last season, but the difference between the two is still significant. If Nunez is exposed in extended playing time, I would expect the Yankees to scour the trade market for an adequate replacement, providing more comfort at the position when Jeter needs to DH. Who knows though, maybe the new throwing motion is a solution to his fielding woes. Maybe he starts utilizing his speed better at the plate in terms of learning to get on top of the ball. Those are two big ifs, however, so expectations for Nunez are justifiably low in 2013.
Photo by Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA (Eduardo Nunez Uploaded by Muboshgu) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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