Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press
The former two-time American League MVP and Triple Crown winner was an idol, of sorts, even before the prime of his 18-year MLB career. As a teenager, Nunez watched Cabrera, now 37, in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Separated by 11 years in age, but connected as a Venezuelan, the 26-year-old Nunez has an opportunity to join his “favorite player of all-time” in the majors. The first baseman signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers on Wednesday, with an invitation to spring training.
“I’m ready to play first base every day,” Nunez told the Free Press on Thursday. “That’s my mindset going into spring training — to work really hard to win the spot at first base. … We got a great group. We’re going to win some games.”
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The last three months haven’t been easy for Nunez.
He was designated for assignment Nov. 20 by the Baltimore Orioles, despite leading the franchise with 31 home runs in 2019 and 12 in 2020. Five days later, after going unclaimed on waivers, he was released.
“He’s a quality player and a good hitter and a big power threat,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias told the Baltimore Sun in November. “Ours is not the ideal roster for him in terms of a fit. We have several players that play defensive spots that he does and short of fill that profile for us.”
Elias’ decision, puzzling to some, made Nunez a free agent.
“That’s part of the past,” Nunez said. “That’s something I cannot handle. All I can do is play hard and help the team win. Whatever I can do to help the team win, I’m going do. … It becomes a motivation in a positive way. I feel blessed and positive about what’s next in my career.”
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Nunez’s agent contacted the Tigers around the start of the new year. At the time, Nunez was in Venezuela with his family and decided to play in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he went 7-for-38 (.184) with two homers and 10 RBIs in 11 games for Navegantes del Magallanes.
His main objective was to cut down on strikeouts.
Nunez hits the ball hard, as displayed by his excellent 12.1% barrel rate in 2020. In 203 games in the 2019-20 seasons, he had 43 homers and 121 RBIs to go with a .247 batting average.
But strikeouts and his on-base percentage have always been his weak spots. Last year, his 29.6% strikeout rate — 64 strikeouts in 216 plate appearances — was the 40th-worst among qualified hitters. He posted OBPs of .311 and .324 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
“Every single day is different,” Nunez said. “You face different guys. It’s about knowing who’s going to pitch and how they’re going to work you. If there are runners on second or third, how are they going to throw to you? Think about that when I step in the box, and I feel that’s going to help a lot. Not even changing my swing. It’s more the mental approach.”
His strikeout rate in Venezuela this offseason improved to 20.4% — nine strikeouts in 44 plate appearances — but he’ll likely need to drop it further in spring training against MLB competition to make the Opening Day roster.
Often, Nunez forces himself to remember that he is only 26. His first full season as a starter in the majors wasn’t until 2019. Under the Tigers’ control through 2024, there’s plenty of time for development.
“When you join (the majors), you just want to go out there and swing hard, hit the ball hard,” Nunez said. “When you get a little bit older, you see the game a little bit different. You know you have to have the mental approach.”
And the Tigers would be pleased to see him clean up his approach, especially if it happens sooner than later.
They need a first baseman.
Manager AJ Hinch‘s options beyond Nunez are Cabrera (whose body can’t handle a full-time workload at first), Jeimer Candelario (who’s more comfortable at third base), Niko Goodrum (who’s a utilityman with a woeful bat) and Jonathan Schoop (a second baseman who has never played first).
That’s not exactly a recipe for success.
Nunez played 140 games at designated hitter, 81 at third base, 52 at first base and eight in left field over five seasons with the Oakland Athletics (2016-17), Texas Rangers (2018) and Orioles (2018-20). He was exclusively a first baseman in Venezuela this offseason.
“All I can do is play the game hard,” Nunez said. “I can play first base. I can play third, too. Just be ready to play every day and try to help the team win.”
Getting comfortable, on the field or in the clubhouse, won’t be difficult. He has hit in the batting cages alongside Cabrera a few times throughout his career, most recently at Team Sosa Baseball in Hialeah, Florida. Also, he competed against utility player Harold Castro many times in the Venezuelan Winter League. And he has a close relationship with catcher Wilson Ramos, another Venezuelan.
On the coaching staff, he worked with third base coach Chip Hale in Oakland during the 2017 season. He bumped into Hinch a few times in Texas when the Rangers clashed with Hinch’s previous team, the Houston Astros.
“I’m pretty familiar with the team,” Nunez said. “It’s amazing. We’ve got a great group of guys, and I feel excited to be a part of the team now. … All I’m thinking about is next week. I want to be over there in the complex, meeting everybody and starting workouts.”
If he can maintain his power stroke and cut down on strikeouts, Nunez should have a good chance of breaking camp on the big-league roster and joining Cabrera — his favorite player — for the 2021 season.
His tryout begins Feb. 22, when the Tigers hold their first full-team workout in Lakeland, Florida.
“I don’t want to bother him like, ‘Hey, man, get out of here,'” Nunez said, laughing. “But, of course, I want to ask the guy some questions. Just to see him every day, to see what he does in the cage, the way he talks with his teammates. All of that is going to be great (lessons) for me to learn.
“That’s one of the reasons that I’m really excited about spring training, watching him work every single day. That’s my favorite player right there.”