In 2011, Eduardo Nunez firmly established himself as the Yankees backup infielder. Given the job out of spring training, the then 23 year old seemed to rise to the occasion. He surprised Yankees fans across the board with his ability with the bat. Unlike utility players in the past (Enrique Wilson, Ramiro Pena, etc.), Nunez was a non-zero hitter.
Over 112 games and 338 at bats, Nunez put up a more than respectable line of .265/.313/.385 adding up to a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+. That type of offensive production is more than you can expect from any bench player. For a good comparison, look towards Derek Jeter‘s 2010 line (.270/.340/.370).
For the first few months, Nunez was not given the chance to prove himself one way or another. In fact, it was not until Derek Jeter went down with an injury in mid-June that the young shortstop truly made his mark. Through 66 plate appearances, Nunez hit .333/.375/.517.
So, Eduardo Nunez was a near league average hitter on the season, and when asked to fill in for the starting shortstop, passed with flying colors. So what is the problem?
Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have Nunez pegged as well below replacement level at -.6 and -.7 WAR respectively. These negative values were not contrived from his bat, as his numbers were more than respectable even for a starting shortstop. Rather, they are a result of his atrocious fielding.
According to fangraphs, Nunez cost the team 15.7 runs due to his defense alone. Baseball-Reference has him at a slightly less disastrous -12 defensive runs. And one does not even need to look into advanced metrics to figure out that Nunez was horrendous with the glove- the eye test and good old fashion Error stat do the trick.
It seemed that every time the ball would leave Nunez’s hand, Yankee fans across the country would cringe. He made 6 errors in 285.1 innings at short and 14 errors in just 386.1 innings at third. Nunez led the team in this category despite not being in the starting lineup regularly.
Now, picking apart the backup infielder’s game seems to be a nitpick on a championship-caliber team. After all, he is a bench guy with a passable bat, good speed, and some shoddy defense. But with the current construction of the team, i.e. the old left side, the lack of a better option may easily become a problem.
Derek Jeter, 37, and Alex Rodriguez, 36, both missed time in 2011 and are both prime candidates to hit the DL at some point in 2012. If Nunez is forced to step in for any extended period of time, there is a high probability that the holes in his game will be exposed to the point where something must be done.
Everything seemed to work out well with Nunez and Eric Chavez splitting time in 2011, but Eric Chavez, even if he decides not to retire, cannot be counted on. The guy is made of glass. Looking into the system, and there are two candidates, Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird.
Pena is your prototypical slick-fielding, no-hit backup. In fact, his bat is so bad that he was worth even less than Eduardo Nunez in 2011 despite playing in just a fraction of the games. So Pena is not a viable option.
Laird is an interesting option. He is primarily a 1B/3B guy with a good glove that has consistently gotten better over the past few seasons. The problem with Laird though is that he has not proven that he can hit above AA. The 24 year old failed to put up even a .300 OBP in 489 at bats in Scranton, making him a cheap, but risky option.
So it seems that if the Yankees wish to provide themselves more safety on the left side of the infield, they will have to look towards the free agent or trade market. Moshe Mandel over at River Ave Blues looked into some options for an Alex Rodriguez “caddy,” and topping the list was current Brave Martin Prado.
Prado had a down year in 2011, and the Braves have indicated that they are looking into shedding his salary. From 2008-2010, Prado was a solid hitter, so the Yankees should, and probably will look into the Braves’ asking price. There are also some interesting names on the free agent market: Casey Blake, Jerry Hairston Jr., Ty Wigginton, among others.
In the end, the Yankees are a good enough team that they can get by with an overexposed Eduardo Nunez. But seeing as how they play in the toughest division in baseball, it may be wise to look into a possible upgrade.