Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press
The 26-year-old doesn’t need to be the everyday first baseman. But for Nunez to make the 26-man roster for Opening Day and cash in on his $1.3 million major-league contract, he must prove he can log significant innings at that position.
“They told me they want me to play first base,” Nunez said Thursday. “That’s what I’ve been doing. … You have to be a complete player if you want to be in MLB, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I feel great at first base.”
Nunez glove, whether at first or third base, isn’t outstanding. That’s why he spent most of 2019 and 2020 as the Baltimore Orioles’ designated hitter, slugging his way to a .247 batting average, 43 home runs and 121 RBIs in 203 games.
The power is evident and unlikely to evaporate.
But manager AJ Hinch needs to see consistency at first base.
“He has to show that he’s comfortable at first base and that we’re comfortable with him at first base,” Hinch said Thursday. “Obviously, the bat speaks for itself. He’s done some damage in the league already, and we know he can hit the ball out of the park. But if you look at the roster, his best chance is to contribute at first base.”
Nunez, under team control through 2024, has played in parts of five MLB seasons for the Oakland Athletics (2016-17), Texas Rangers (2018) and Orioles (2018-20). He hasn’t made an All-Star roster, but he possesses legit big-league talent, especially at the plate.
Those short stints with other franchises make the message from Hinch to Nunez — “Hey, you got to come in and try to make our team,” as Hinch described it — a little awkward.
“But that’s the reality for him,” Hinch said. “We’ve got to evaluate the multiple ways that we would use him on the roster. The primary DH is going to be Miggy, and that leaves Nunez’s defensive usefulness as the thing under the microscope.”
Miguel Cabrera, entering his 19th season in the majors, will be the designated hitter until his contract expires in 2023. Therefore, Nunez doesn’t have a lot of other options. He needs to play first base, considering Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes are more than capable of handling the hot corner.
When Cabrera gets action at first base, others will slot in as the designated hitter. But that’s likely no more than a once- or twice-a-week occurence.
“I want to be an everyday player,” Nunez said. “I want to play more defense. I want to be a player that, when you see me, you want to play me in the field. You don’t want my bat. You want my defense. That’s something I want.”
Nunez wasn’t fully cleared to join spring training activities until Tuesday. He was delayed, well beyond the first full-squad workout on Feb. 22, because of work-visa and travel issues. Once he entered the U.S., he also had to quarantine for five days as part of the COVID-19 intake screening process.
Now that Nunez is in camp, he is beginning the task of showing he belongs as a mainstay in the major leagues. Hinch has already hit ground balls to Nunez, and said the newcomer “moves around great” in the infield.
In-game opportunities, however, will ultimately determine his value as a first baseman.
“That’s his best path to our team,” Hinch said. “That and in the batter’s box.”