The fact that the budget trimming Baltimore Orioles did not tender a contract offer to Renato Núñez this offseason was a mild surprise. Núñez had led the club with 43 home runs and 121 RBI over the 2019- 2020 seasons. A bigger surprise was the fact that the Detroit Tigers were able to sign the 26-year-old right handed slugger to a minor league contract, with an invitation to spring training. Núñez immediately became the favorite to open the season as the Tigers’ starting first baseman, and he could become a fixture at the premier sack in Detroit for a few seasons.
Núñez qualified for arbitration as a “super two” player, having accrued two years and 167 days of major league service time. He was projected by Matt Swartz of MLBtraderumors.com to receive a salary between $2.1 million and $3.9 million through arbitration. That was a bit too rich for the “rebuilding” Orioles, who are set to enter the 2021 season with an opening day payroll of just $34.9 million for the 26 man roster. That ranks dead last in the major leagues.
After being signed by the Oakland A’s from his native Venezuela in 2010, Núñez spent part of eight seasons in the minor leagues, making his major league debut in 2016. He played just 17 games for the A’s before being claimed off waivers by the Texas Rangers in April, 2018. Less than a month later, he was on the waiver wire again, this time to be claimed by the Orioles, where he started to see regular playing time in the major leagues.
For the past two seasons, Núñez has been a starting player, logging 599 plate appearances in 2019 and 216 in 2020. Starting players typically have a floor of $2 million plus when it comes time for arbitration, and that price tag escalates as they accrue more service time. While he has four more seasons before he can become a six year free agent, Núñez could find himself being a perennial non tender candidate, or he could settle in as the regular first baseman in Detroit.
The Tigers got themselves a decent major league player with upside, and a replacement for CJ Cron, who departed the 2020 season after just 10 games with a season ending injury. Miguel Cabrera has made it known that he would like to play some first base during the upcoming season, but he will primarily be the designated hitter, possibly swapping positions with Núñez, as Jeimer Candelario appears set to move back to his original position at third base most days.
Núñez posted a slash line of .256/ .324/ .492 in the shortened 2020 season, which was good for an OPS of .816 with a .347 wOBA and 120 wRC+. He belted a dozen home runs after smashing 31 bombs in 2019, both more than any player on the Tigers’ roster. He has been above average at the plate in each of the past three seasons, splitting time between first base, third base, left field and DH. He actually has logged more time at third base, but played 28 games at first, 21 as DH and just four games at third for Baltimore the past two seasons.
Núñez has gradually shown an increase in power each season, and he has maintained a BB rate of 7.3 to 7.9 percent. His strikeout ratio spiked in 2020 as did his batting average on balls in play, although a .317 BABIP is not out of the ordinary. Núñez hits a lot of fly balls though the contact is too often weak, but he does have very balanced career splits which gives Hinch a lot of flexibility in how he’s deployed. In this lineup, he swings a middle of the order type bat, but his lack of speed or good on base percentages may mean he and his fellow new Tigers slugger, right fielder Nomar Mazara, will form a power pair in the fifth and sixth spots in the order.
As Núñez heads into his arbitration eligible years, he is also out of options, meaning that if he signed a major league deal, he could not be sent down to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers. The Tigers won’t have that problem since he isn’t on the 40 man roster just yet. He will turn 27 on April 4, 2021.
The Tigers have multiple ways that they could arrange their infield this season, with Candelario, Cabrera, Núñez, and possibly Jonathan Schoop or Niko Goodrum all in the mix for reps at first base. When Cron hit the injured list last summer, Candelario moved across the diamond while Isaac Paredes took over at third base. Should the Tigers wish to keep Paredes in the starting lineup, that could push either Núñez or Schoop out of the lineup, removing one of their more productive hitters.
Paredes is the wild card in any infield scenario in Detroit this season. The Tigers’ top position prospect prior to the arrival of Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, who are due to arrive in 2022 or later, Paredes struggled at the plate in just 108 plate appearances in his debut season, slashing .220/ 278/.290. He will hit better than that, eventually, but if he’s not going to get significant playing time in Detroit, he is likely destined for Triple-A Toledo, where he can play every day.
Unlike Paredes, shortstop Willi Castro arrived in Detroit last summer and exploded onto the scene, virtually assuring his place as the starting shortstop at least for a while, as Niko Goodrum has assumed a utility role. Both players have options left, which could be used if necessary. Manager A.J. Hinch has several versatile players to move around the diamond and is showing a distinct propensity for experimentation.
It is noteworthy that the start of the minor league season is on pause until May, and that could affect roster decisions for teams who don’t want their almost ready for prime time players sitting around. The same dynamic was present last year, when there was no minor league action to keep prospects in action, so a number of them were called up, ready or not. If that means that Paredes starts the season in Detroit, there may not be a roster spot awaiting Núñez just yet.
The bottom line is that when the Tigers decide that Paredes is ready, the presence of either Núñez or Schoop won’t stand in his path. For now though, assume the Tigers would like to see Núñez working with new hitting coaches Scott Coolbaugh and Jose Cruz Jr. As a late arrival to camp due to the COVID protocols, he’s a bit behind the curve right now, but odds remain good that he’ll head north to Detroit when major league camp breaks.