It’s been no secret that the Orioles have been terrible this season: The Birds have the worst record in the major leagues, and Chris Davis has had the worst season of any hitter this year by several measures. The farm system is noticeably lacking strong prospects, especially at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. Everyone expects Manny Machado to be traded at some point before August. Put simply, there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer for this year.
So where should the Orioles go from here?
I wrote a few weeks ago about how it would be interesting to see the Orioles join the Rays in using an “opening pitcher.” But there’s another strategy I’d like to see them try, and it’s much less radical: giving MLB playing time to veteran minor leaguers performing well with the Tides and Baysox.
These types of players are known as “Quad-A” – guys who excel in the minor leagues but for whatever reason have struggled heavily in the majors or have never really gotten an opportunity because scouts and GMs think they’ll struggle at the highest level. They’re caught in a sort of purgatory, consistently putting up big numbers and earning playing time at Triple-A but never quite getting a consistent opportunity to prove themselves in the major leagues.
Some teams who take a flyer on Quad-A players are rewarded many times over. The Blue Jays acquired a little-known journeyman third baseman named Jose Bautista in 2008 from the Pirates in exchange for a player to be named later. Bautista went on to establish himself as one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball and a six-time All-Star outfielder, twice leading the American League in home runs.
But for every Jose Bautista, there’s a mountain of Quad-A players like Bryan LaHair or Russ Canzler who never pan out. A 2012 article from Baseball Prospectus looked at reasons for why Quad-A players are often unsuccessful, quoting an unnamed scout who notes that while the minor leagues are about player development, the major leagues are about winning. Major league hitters are analyzed much more carefully by opposing teams than minor leaguers, meaning that it’s easier to expose a hitter’s weaknesses, and better pitching means that hitters don’t get as many mistake pitches to capitalize on.
All of those points are true, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The 2018 Orioles are not winning. They don’t have any chance of making the playoffs. With fan and industry expectations this low, Camden Yards in 2018 is about as low-pressure a Major League environment as a player could find. It’s the perfect chance to turn Quad-A hitters loose, giving them consistent MLB playing time and seeing if any of them run with it.
By watching the Tides play (I go to most games and watch from the press box), I’ve noticed several hitters whom I’d love to see get a chance in Baltimore – even if they aren’t “prospects” in the traditional sense of the word. One hitter in particular, Renato Nuñez, sticks out to me as someone to whom the Orioles should consider giving a serious shot.
Although he’s just 24 – younger than the prototypical Quad-A hitter – Nuñez has spent parts of the last three seasons in the big leagues, playing a total of 30 games and hitting a combined .167/.222/.273 with two home runs for the Athletics and Rangers. Despite that dismal showing, he’s put up big numbers in the minor leagues, having hit 123 MiLB home runs from 2014-2017. While he’s hit just one home run this year for the Tides, his OBP is up 51 points from last year for the Athletics’ AAA team in Nashville and he’s on pace to hit more doubles than he’s ever hit in a single season.
It might be alarming for some people to see that a hitter who averaged almost 25 home runs a year for five straight years has only hit one as of mid-June, but part of that likely stems from moving from the infamously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League to the much more pitcher-friendly International League while playing half of his games in Norfolk’s Harbor Park – one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the IL. Nuñez might even be a more complete hitter in 2018 than he’s been in any previous season, as he’s getting on base much more consistently even while moving to a difficult hitter’s environment.
It’s clear what types of players Danny Valencia, Tim Beckham, and Chris Davis are from the years all three have spent in the big leagues. We know what we can realistically expect from all three. But what can Renato Nuñez provide the Orioles? Is he the 30-home run threat he was in the Pacific Coast League? Probably not, but he’s likely not a .167 MLB hitter either. In a season that’s been lost almost from the start, the only way to answer that question is to give Nuñez – and other players like him – a chance.
It certainly can’t hurt.