Can Yankees Prospect Eduardo Nunez's Defense EVER Catch Up to His Bat?

Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterSeptember 19, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 17: Eduardo Nunez #26 of the New York Yankees runs out an RBI single in the third inning against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on April 17, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

For the last three seasons, Eduardo Nunez has served as the New York Yankees utility infielder thanks to his versatility and speed. He’s filled in at both shortstop and third base in the wake of injuries to either Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez and, at times, was a suitable replacement.

However, despite his athleticism and tools, Nunez has never evolved into a dependable player for the Yankees—someone who factors into the organization’s long-term outlook. And no matter how much experience he gains in the major leagues, the 25-year-old is seemingly unable to fuse all of his raw talent into a consistent, on-field product.

Signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Nunez impressed in his professional debut for Staten Island of the Class-A Short Season New York-Penn League in 2005. Playing in 73 games, the right-handed hitter batted .313/.365/.427 with 20 extra-base hits and 43 RBI in 310 plate appearances.

He struggled for the next two seasons between Low- and High-A, as his lack of plate discipline and inability to make adjustments impeded his overall development.

As a 22-year-old, he reached Double-A for the first time in 2009—his fifth professional season. Surprisingly, Nunez turned in his most impressive minor league campaign to date, as he batted .322/.349/.433 and set career-highs for hits (160), doubles (26), home runs (nine) and walks (32). Following the season, the Yankees added him to their 40-man roster.

He received a promotion to Triple-A before the 2010 season and essentially picked up where he left off the previous year. Appearing in 118 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the International League, Nunez batted .289/.340/.381 with 25 doubles and 23 stolen bases.

His progress was ultimately rewarded with a big league call-up in late August of that year. And after posting a .681 OPS in 30 games, the Yankees added Nunez to their postseason roster.

Seemingly poised for a breakout effort in the major leagues in 2011, Nunez’s season was only mediocre, although he did stick with the club all year due to various injuries. As a 24-year-old, he ultimately batted .265/.313/.698 and scored only 38 runs in 112 games.

Even though his 2011 season was Nunez’s first full one in the major leagues, it was also an audition to determine his expected level of contribution in the future. Therefore, despite playing an important role as the team’s utility man, it was also evident that he’d never offer anything beyond his 2011 production.

So, after breaking camp with the Yankees out of spring training earlier this year, Nunez was optioned to the minors on May 11. Although he posted a paltry .554 OPS in 44 games, it’s important to note that he did miss significant time with a thumb injury.

He returned to the major leagues on Sept. 1, when the active roster expanded from 25 to 40 players, and has since batted .294/.351/.412 in 29 games.

But no matter the amount of promise he flashes at the major league level, Nunez will never be a viable candidate for a full-time role In the Yankees infield.

The majority of Nunez’s value stems from his defensive versatility. In 680 career minor league games spanning seven seasons, he’s appeared in 641 at shortstop while also logging 17 games at third base and 19 at second base.

In the major leagues, though, he’s never been used at one position exclusively. Of his 160 career games, Nunez has logged 71 at shortstop, 63 at third base and 18 at second base, and has even appeared in eight games as an outfielder.

Nunez’s greatest asset as a defender is undoubtedly his plus arm, a tool that profiles well at either third base or shortstop. However, like so many raw players, he’s developed a habit of airing it out rather than honing his actions and gaining momentum toward his target.

With plus speed, Nunez is able to get to many of the balls that the Yankees’ veteran infielders can’t, but he still struggles to complete plays with consistency—hence the annual high error totals.

Furthermore, he struggles to retain focus at times, and in turn makes too many lackadaisical, mental errors. Perhaps they may decrease with positional stability, but it appears as though it will always be part of Nunez’s game.

At the plate, he’s never posted concerning strikeout rates despite a reputation as a free swinger. Year after year, Nunez makes too many weak outs, as his ability to make consistent contact is as much of a detriment as it is an asset.

He’s never hit double-digit home runs in a single season, and there’s no reason to believe he’s capable of doing so in the major leagues. However, he can still be counted on to amass 20-plus doubles and stolen bases.

Before the Yankees re-signed Derek Jeter to a three-year, $51 million contract prior to the 2011 season, Nunez was slated to become the team’s everyday shortstop. But in hindsight, perhaps the contract was a blessing in disguise.

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Jeter has tallied 361 total hits in 275 games while Nunez has held his own as the Yankees’ role-playing mediocre reserve infielder.

With the bankroll and aggressiveness to sign any number of established big league infielders, Nunez’s only direct path to playing time will come via injury—just as it did in 2011.

However, there will always be a need throughout baseball for a player with those qualifications. So, don’t be surprised if he ultimately hangs around for a while in a similar role.