Núñez’s childhood hero is now his teammate

Detroit Tigers

Núñez was 12 when the Tigers became Venezuela’s team three years later, riding the clutch hitting of Magglio Ordonez and the two-way play of Carlos Guillen to the World Series.

He was a 26-year-old slugger with 43 home runs over his last two seasons when the Orioles designated him for assignment last November. His difficult offseason as a sudden free agent led him down a winding road to a team he followed as a kid with a teammate he idolized growing up.

“It’s been amazing, man,” Núñez said on a Thursday morning video conference with reporters. “[Cabrera was] my favorite player since I was a little kid. So imagine being around here now in the clubhouse.”

In the process, he also gets a chance to win an everyday role again, something that might have seemed lost at the end of last season with the Orioles’ youth movement.

“I want to be an everyday player,” Núñez said. “I want to play a little more defense, of course. I’ve been working a lot on that. I want to be a player that, when you saw me, you want to play me in the field.”

When Núñez is on a hot streak, he’s impossible to keep out of a lineup. When he hit five home runs in seven games to begin last August for the Orioles, there was no sitting him out. He helped power the O’s to a surprising start and began the conversation for a playoff push in the expanded playoffs.

He has had stretches like that before. His 31 homers in 2019, baseball’s last full season, included homers in four consecutive games and eight homers in a 12-game span. Everything seems to be hit hard when he’s on, and he becomes a fantasy baseball owner’s dream.

The flip side, of course, are the cold stretches. Despite setting career bests with a .492 slugging percentage, .816 OPS and 121 OPS+, his 2020 campaign included a .203 average with 32 strikeouts in 79 at-bats from late August into September. Those downturns eventually cost him some playing time as the Orioles tried to find at-bats for not only him, but rookie Ryan Mountcastle.

Núñez wants to level out the stretches, which he illustrated by making waves with his hands on the video conference before calming them.

“In baseball, as you guys know, sometimes you’ve got ups and downs,” he said. “What you want to do is to try to keep it in the middle, maybe up, all the time. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot in my swing, trying to be a little more consistent so I can keep the same numbers to have a great season and help the team.”

While the Orioles’ youth movement moved Núñez out of the picture there, he said he’s still thankful for the opportunity he had in Baltimore for the past three seasons.

“They gave me a chance to play the game,” Núñez said. “They gave me the chance to be comfortable and play the game. I think as a player, that’s what you want. You want a team that can let you play, can let you be yourself. They gave me that.”

His fresh start in Detroit reunites him with the hitting coach who helped him through his first two seasons in Baltimore. Scott Coolbaugh was there when he came over in the middle of the 2018 season, then through 2019.

“I was just getting there to the bigs, and he allows me to play my game, be relaxed and be yourself,” Núñez said. “I think when you’re yourself and you feel comfortable at the plate, that’s when you’re going to do some damage.”

He feels comfortable so far in Tigertown after finally clearing travel issues and protocols to join camp. He’s on a Minor League deal at the moment, but unless he slumps badly in camp, he should get his first chance at first base. And while his enthusiasm is evident, the kid in him is thinking back.

“I feel blessed,” he said. “I feel blessed to be here, part of the Detroit Tigers. A lot of players have played here from Venezuela — Magglio, Carlos, Miggy here. I feel great to be part of the Detroit Tigers, and I’m ready to help the team win. That’s what I came here for.”

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