When the rosters for the 2016 All-Star Game were released Tuesday night, an unusual name appeared on the list of American League reserves: Eduardo Nunez, the former New York Yankees utility man who now plays for the Minnesota Twins. He’s been in the majors since 2010, but he’s mostly been used as a backup/utility type, and only once has he played anything close to a full season (112 games in 2011). He’d never lived up to the hype after the Yankees signed him out of the Dominican Republic to be the heir apparent to Derek Jeter, but he’s resurrected his career in the Twin Cities. How did this erstwhile utility man become one of the best players in the American League?
Nunez was a well-regarded prospect coming up in the Yankees system; at one point he was ranked as the number six Yankees prospect by Baseball America, and he consistently earned high praise for his defense and arm strength. In 2010, he won the Kevin Lawn Award as the Yankees’ minor league player of the year and was called up in August of that season to make his major league debut. In 53 plate appearances in 2010, he hit .280/.321/.360 while making appearances at third base, shortstop, second base, and DH.
In 2011, Nunez again filled a utility role, making 39 starts at shortstop, 33 at third base, nine at second base, and two in right field. He hit .265/.313/.385, but walked just 22 times in 338 plate appearances, and was eight runs worse offensively than the average player. It also became apparent that he was not a good defender, as he posted a combined -12 defensive runs saved (-9 at shortstop, -2 at third base, -1 in right field).
Nunez was sent back to the minors in early 2012 so he could get regular playing time at shortstop, as the Yankees still viewed him as Jeter’s eventual replacement at that point. He was promoted back to the big leagues in September, and then was left off New York’s postseason roster, but was later added as an injury replacement when Jeter suffered a fractured ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS. He went two-for-six and hit a home run off of Justin Verlander in the series, but the Detroit Tigers swept the Yankees in four games.
During spring training of 2013, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman reversed course and said that Nunez would again be a utility player. Ribcage and oblique injuries limited Nunez to 90 games, however, and he hit just .260/.307/.372 while posting a comically bad -27 DRS.
Nunez did not make the Yankees’ roster out of spring training in 2014, and he was designated for assignment. The Twins traded for Nunez on April 7, 2014, sending the Yankees minor league left-hander Miguel Sulbaran, and Nunez was optioned to Triple-A Rochester. He appeared in 72 games and made 213 plate appearances for Minnesota that season, hitting .250/.271/.382 and splitting his time nearly evenly between third base, shortstop, and left field.
In 2015, things started to get interesting. Nunez’s defense improved, and he posted a +1 DRS, and his slash line improved to .282/.327/.431. He was worth seven more runs than the average player. They’re decent numbers, but they came from a small sample size (72 games and 204 plate appearances) and definitely didn’t suggest that he would have such a big breakout the very next season.
Nunez began this season in his familiar role of utility man, but he hit so well while filling in for injured shortstop Eduardo Escobar that he’s found a place in the everyday lineup for the first time in his career. He’s currently hitting .315, good for ninth in the AL, although his inability to take a walk remains an issue and his OBP is only slightly above average at .341. He’s slugging .479 and has hit 11 home runs, which is already more than double his previous season high of five. He’s also stolen 19 bases and has a 79.2 percent success rate, and appears to be on pace for a 20-20 season. He’s benefitted from a career-high BABIP (.333, career average .302), and 10.9 percent of his fly balls have gone for home runs, which is well above league average. His defense has slipped again after his decent 2015, posting a -6 DRS at shortstop and -3 at both second and third base. Still, his overall numbers are very good for someone with his defensive versatility, which is invaluable.
Nunez’s unlikely rise has been a fun story to follow this season. His great play and this hilarious swing and miss on Texas Rangers backup catcher Bryan Holaday‘s knuckleball have been a bright spot for an abysmal Twins team.