Renato Núñez: Building Block or Trade Chip?

In a lost season for the Orioles in 2019, the organization has certainly had some bright spots about which fans can be excited…

John Means shocked the organization and fanbase by becoming the best starter on the club and making the American League All-Star team. Trey Mancini is rebounding from his rough 2018 campaign, having the best season of his career and is the leader of the youngest ballclub in baseball. Anthony Santander, a 2017 Rule 5 selection by former executive vice president and general manager Dan Duquette, is excelling both in the outfield and in the batter’s box.

On the minor league front, the Orioles selected catcher Adley Rutschman with the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. The organization then acted aggressively on July 2, signing 27 international prospects. Also, last week Baseball America ranked the Orioles as the No. 8 farm system in baseball, a huge jump from their previous spot at No. 22.

There are other notable highlights from the Orioles this season, both in the majors and minors, but I won’t go down the whole list. But one I do want to discuss is the emergence of designated hitter Renato Núñez.

Núñez, 25, is in his first full season at the big league level. He appeared in nine games and eight games with the Oakland Athletics in 2016 and 2017, respectively. He played 13 games with the Texas Rangers in 2018 before being selected off waivers by the Orioles that May. The O’s stashed Núñez in Triple-A Norfolk, where he played 313 1/3 innings at the hot corner and 46 at first base. He batted .289/.361/.443 with five home runs in 56 games with the Tides.

He made his Orioles debut after the All-Star break once a hole was created due to the departure of Manny Machado via trade. In 60 games with the O’s Núñez slashed .275/.336/.445 with seven home runs.

Coming into this season, Núñez was battling with offseason acquisition Rio Ruiz for the starting third base position during spring training. Ruiz seemed to have the edge – especially because Núñez is not only a below-average defender at third, but he also sustained a biceps strain which limited him to DH duties with the occasional first base appearance – but Núñez still captured a roster spot, possibly aided by Mark Trumbo hitting the injured list to open 2019.

Renato Nunez swings.

Craig Landefeld/GulfBird Sports

He has taken full advantage of the roster spot and designated hitter’s role.

In 100 games with the Birds this season, Núñez is batting .253/.323/.515 while leading the team in homers with 25.

Where in the world did this power display come from?

Núñez used to be viewed highly in the Athletics’ minors. MLBPipeline.com included him in Oakland’s top-10 prospects for six consecutive seasons: No. 10 in 2011, No. 8 in 2012, No. 3 in each of 2013 and 2014, No. 6 in 2015 and No. 5 in 2016. He dropped to 20th in 2017.

There were questions of Núñez’s overall hitting capabilities and defensive abilities at third base, but one thing was for sure: this kid has pop, and his numbers in the minors backed up the scouting reports. Núñez hit 19 homers in 2013 with Single-A Beloit, 29 in 2014 with Single-A Stockton, 18 in 2015 with Double-A Midland, 23 in 2016 with Triple-A Nashville and 32 in 2017 with Nashville.

Núñez got off to a rough start this season, batting .211/.253/.379 with seven home runs in his first 170 plate appearances through May 19. From May 20 on he’s been on fire, slashing .287/.374/.624 with 18 dingers in 230 plate appearances. His 25 round trippers on the season are tied for seventh most among American League hitters.

So the question here is: Where does Núñez fall into the Orioles’ plans going forward? He’s mostly limited to designated hitter, but he has been very productive at the plate in his first full season in the bigs and is under team control through 2024.

I’d assume with him being cheap on the payroll and having five and a half seasons of control left, the Orioles aren’t in any rush to trade away Núñez. However, according to Joe Trezza of MLB.com, teams “are keeping an eye on” the Orioles’ slugger. To double up on Trezza’s tweet, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com wrote earlier today that scouts have been checking out Núñez, and it’s possible that a reason for him to be playing more first and third base lately is because the Orioles may be trying to “showcase him.” Even for the players who haven’t hit arbitration eligibility, the Orioles probably won’t hang up the phone on any player.

Everybody has a price.

If the Orioles are confident in Núñez’s ability to keep up this production for years to come, they’ll probably keep him on the club. I’m not sure an American League club has such a big hole at DH that they’d need to overpay for a hitter who has only had one season of success and has no defensive position. However, if the Orioles have reason to believe Núñez’s season is a fluke, they may take the best offer on the table.

If the club believes he can hold down a designated hitter’s role for both the present and the future, it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the lineup and defensive alignment shapes up. Núñez would fit with the club’s future plans much better if Mancini is used as a trade chip. While MLB Network’s Jon Morosi tweeted that the Orioles are having “active” trade talks with multiple suitors regarding Mancini, Kubatko wrote that Mancini is unlikely to be dealt this week. We’ll just have to wait and see later this week what happens.

With young outfielders, both with the club and in the higher minors, Mancini could ultimately be pushed to his natural position at first base, which is also where prospect Ryan Mountcastle figures to play the bulk of his time in the big leagues. It’s worth noting the Orioles have had Mountcastle get some work in at left field in Norfolk. But Santander’s emergence with the O’s, combined with the prospect talents of Yusniel Diaz and Austin Hays, could complicate matters for playing time if both Mancini and Núñez are still in the fold.

The Orioles have interesting decisions coming up when it comes to their potential trade chips in Mancini, Mychal Givens and Jonathan Villar. But it seems they have a tough one looming on Núñez as well. His age and bat look beneficial for the Orioles to keep around long-term, but sitting in a designated hitter role could potentially cause issues as the rebuild continues with more positions being filled by up-and-coming prospects.

The Orioles are willing to listen on anyone and open to trading any player for a fair return. If teams end up calling on Núñez, how high do the Orioles set the bar on a DH who is in his first full big league season? Do they shoot for the skies, thinking that his bat is legitimate enough to stick in this league going forward? Or do they simply take the best offer on the table, with the mindset that Núñez is outplaying what they project him as going forward, making him expendable at his highest value point?

We’ll have to wait and see.

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