(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)
After some positive early signs that Derek Jeter was going to be able to recover from his ankle surgery and be ready to play, we now know that Eduardo Nunez is going to be the Yankees' Opening Day shortstop. We also know that he's going to be the starting shortstop for at least the next handful of games after that and we can safely assume that he'll be getting regular work at the position all season long. That's a frightening thought for any Yankee fan based on what we've seen to date from Nunez, but it's a reality that we're going to have to accept and live with. That being the case, let's investigate just how the Yankees can maximize Nunez's potential value and not have another spot in the lineup and position on the field turn into a black hole.
Evaluating Nunez on the 5-tool scale, I come up with 1.5 tools that he possesses and that's being generous. His defensive game is obviously a disaster. Despite his plus arm strength, his inability to throw the ball with any kind of accuracy makes it impossible to say he has a good throwing arm, and for all the athletic ability he has I've never seen any metrics that paint his range in a positive light. He doesn't hit for power (career .112 ISO), but he does have speed and based on his low career K rate and career .272 batting average I'm willing to give him half a point in the 'hitting for average' category.
So in Nunez, the Yankees have a speedy guy with plus contact skills that can presumably be turned into a decent batting average. His .293/.373/.362 ST batting line spells that description out statistically, as does his 6-8 record in SB attempts. His .272/.318/.384 career tripleslash and 38-46 career SB record is also in agreement. There might even be room for some offensive improvement if Nunez can carry his elevated BB rate and OBP to the regular season, but where the Yankees bat him will determine how much value that translates to.
With the shortage of useful right-handed bats right now, there's a lot of talk about going with a Gardner-Ichiro-Cano top of the batting order and based on his preference for veterans that's what I anticipate Joe doing. Given Nunez's 1.5 tools and the need to get the most out of them, he could actually be a good option to hit second. That would allow Joe to keep the lineup balanced, and his speed on the basepaths would allow for the same GIDP avoidance behind Gardner and RISP-creating opportunity ahead of Cano that Ichiro's would. That's the spot that Jeter would most likely be hitting against right-handed pitching, and Nunez's career GB contact tendencies aren't as extreme as Jeter's are. If you step back and look at it that way, hitting Nunez in the 2-spot isn't as crazy as it sounds.
Defensively, there's not much that can really be done to help Nunez's problems throwing the ball. The reports on his new mechanics have been positive, but it's really on him to be a professional and make the throws when the time comes. While his spring hasn't been error-plagued, he has thrown a few balls away and the only real chance to help limit that will come if and when the Yankees decide to play Lyle Overbay at first as a defensive upgrade until Teix returns. His range, however good or bad it is, is better than Jeter's, so if he gets to a few more balls and has a few of his bad throws saved, there's some more value.
500 career plate appearances spread over three seasons might not be enough to make a definitive call on Nunez and whether or not he can reach a level of consistent above-average production. For all the talk about the tools he has, he's really only shown one or two of them to date, and based on the sample size we do have those tools have yet to translate to positive value. There is an opportunity to maximize the value in those tools this season, and with Jeter's ankle expected to be a year-long problem it's to the Yankees' benefit to use Nunez in a way that allows for that maximization and puts him in a position to be successful.
(Photo courtesy of Reuters)