With Jeter on the 15-day DL with a calf injury, Nunez has suddenly become a very important Yankee. In fact, Nunez may remain a very important Yankee, even after Jeter returns to play. Calf injuries are nagging injuries. Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins suffered a similar injury in 2010, and Rollins reports that the injury bothered him throughout the 2010 season. According to Rollins, “The best advice I can give Derek is, ‘You’re going to get healed in the offseason.’”
We can hope that Jeter’s injury is not as serious as Rollins’ was. But it’s likely that the injury will slow Jeter down even after he’s returned to the lineup. Rollins has advised Jeter to “cautiously” return to play. A cautious return to play means that Jeter will play fewer games in the field, and Nunez may see a lot more time at shortstop.
How good is Nunez? He was the Yankees’ minor league Player of the Year in 2010, hitting .289/.340/.381 and committing only 10 errors at shortstop. Nunez was named to both the midseason and the postseason versions of the AAA All-Star team. In 53 major-league plate appearances in 2010, Nunez hit for a respectable .280/.321/.360. According to some reports, Nunez is the guy the Yankees plan to use in place of Jeter, not just this year while Jeter recovers from injury, but later on after Jeter retires (or otherwise vacates his customary place at shortstop).
How good is Nunez? He spent his first three full minor league years mired on the Yankees single A Charleston and Tampa teams, never hitting for an OPS above .700. In 65 plate appearances for the Yankees this year (not counting tonight’s statistics), Nunez is hitting at a dismal .233/.270/.350 rate, for a chilly OPS+ of 67 and wRC+ of 79 (100 is league average).
Worse than Nunez’s hitting has been his fielding. Not including the error Nunez made in tonight’s game, Nunez has five errors in only 86 innings played at shortstop, for an .849 fielding percentage that is the worst in baseball for any shortstop, and the second-worst for any non-pitcher (minimum 50 innings played). If you prefer advanced fielding statistics, Nunez’s UZR/150 number at shortstop for 2011 is -31.9 – this is based on a small sample size, to be sure, but this number projects Nunez to cost the Yankees about three wins just with his fielding, assuming that Nunez played at shortstop for a full season.
Nunez’s 2011 fWAR before tonight’s game is -0.3, meaning that he’s been playing below the level of a mythical “replacement level” fill-in player. This statistic defies the actual interest that other teams have shown in Nunez. The Yankees’ refusal to ship Nunez to Seattle resulted in Cliff Lee being traded last year to the Rangers instead of the Yankees. During last year’s post season, the Atlanta Braves reportedly expressed interest in acquiring Nunez. Still, Nunez has never been ranked among the Yankees’ highest graded prospects. This year, John Sickels ranked Nunez as the Yankees’ 13th best prospect, just ahead of Brandon Laird, with a grade of C+ and the comment “looks more like a utility guy to me than a regular”.
In short, we have the good Nunez and the bad Nunez, and both of them showed up in the Bronx tonight. The good Nunez hit a home run, a single and drew a walk, for his second straight 2-4 performance at the plate since Jeter went on the DL. Nunez also stole two bases, passing Jeter for the third highest stolen base total on the Yankees – pretty remarkable, considering that Nunez has only 70 plate appearances this season. But the bad Nunez let a ground ball skip under his glove for an error in the 5th inning. The bad Nunez ran the Yankees out of a potentially big inning, as he was thrown out trying to go from first to third with two outs on Francisco Cervelli’s RBI single in the 5th.
Nunez still looks to me like a project at shortstop. He seems to back up on a lot of ground balls (letting the ball play him, as they used to say back in the day). He also seems to throw a number of loopy tosses to Robinson Cano at second base, tosses that may be getting in the way of Cano turning double plays.
But with Jeter on the shelf, Nunez is the Yankees’ shortstop, for better or worse, and so far it’s for the better. The Yankees are 2-0 since Jeter hit the DL. In games that Nunez has started this year, the Yankees are 10-6. In Nunez’s 10 starts since May 15, the Yankees are 8-2 (the two losses coming against the Red Sox, of course). So far, so good for Eduardo Nunez. Happy birthday!