Detroit Adds Some Lineup Insurance in Renato Núñez

The 2020 season wasn’t entirely full of the doom and gloom that has been the norm in Detroit over the last half decade. Offensively, the Tigers improved over a dismal 2019 performance, and much of that was driven by Jeimer Candelario’s breakout. After emerging as a top prospect with the Cubs and joining the Tigers in a 2017 trade deadline deal, he had a tough time establishing himself in the majors, but he seemingly put everything together last year, posting career-best marks in ISO, wRC+, and strikeout rate.

But even though Candelario looked like he was making good on the promise he showed as a prospect, there were some concerns. As Tony Wolfe wrote when he looked into his breakout back in September:

“Behind the slash line, there is a mix of positives and negatives. His strikeout rate is down, but so is his walk rate. His isolated power is way up, but his BABIP is a flashing yellow caution light. There have certainly been more foolproof 44-game breakouts than Candelario has had, so it’s fair to wonder what his line looks like once we’re further removed from his recent homer surge and his BABIP returns to earth’s atmosphere.”

There are enough positive developments in Candelario’s plate approach and his quality of contact that these concerns might be forgotten this summer. But just in case things turn sour, the Tigers invested in a discount insurance policy by signing ex-Orioles infielder Renato Núñez to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.

Despite being just 26 years old, Núñez has already had a long and interesting route through the majors. Originally signed as an international free agent as a 16-year-old by the Athletics, he made his major league debut in 2016, then rode the shuttle between Triple-A and the majors regularly for the next couple of years before being claimed on waivers by the Rangers in April 2018. He played 13 unremarkable games in Texas before being released again, was claimed by the Orioles, and finally got regular playing time in Baltimore. There, he posted a .253/.319/.464 slash line and a 107 wRC+, blasting 50 home runs in just over 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years and accumulating two WAR in that time.

In 2020, Núñez upped his offensive production to new heights, pushing his ISO to a career-high .236 and posting a 120 wRC+. But despite being one of the more productive hitters in a surprisingly potent Orioles lineup, he was designated for assignment in November and couldn’t land a guaranteed major league contract during the offseason.

Núñez’s skillset isn’t all that difficult to come by these days; the Tigers have a more refined form of it already in Candelario. But it was still surprising to see the Orioles jettison one of their better hitters when they didn’t need to. Núñez was scheduled to see a pay hike in 2021, his first year of arbitration, but his estimated salary would have landed between $2 million and $4 million. Even with Trey Mancini returning to the roster after his bout with colon cancer and Ryan Mountcastle looking like the first baseman of Baltimore’s future, it’s hard to believe the team wouldn’t have been able to find at least semi-regular playing time for Núñez at designated hitter or at third base.

Núñez further established his lone standout skill as a power hitter in 2020, though there were some concerning red flags that popped up with regards to his plate discipline. His swinging strike rate spiked a little bit, though not out of realm of his previous norms, but his chase rate soared. Already well above league average, it spiked to the sixth highest among all qualified batters last year. That led to a jump in strikeout rate, from 23.9% to 29.6%, which otherwise mars what was a solid season at the plate.

There were also some concerning trends in his batted ball profile. First, the good news: Núñez posted a career-best 12.1% barrel rate, an 80th-percentile mark, that was likely the driver of his improved power output. The rest of his StatCast profile is rather concerning. His hard-hit rate fell by more than four points, and his average exit velocity dropped by more than three miles per hour. When he elevated his batted balls, his average exit velocity looked pretty normal at 92.6 mph, but when he put the ball on the ground, all he could do was make weak contact, with an average exit velocity of just 79.6 mph. He made enough quality contact in the air to prop up his entire batting line, but the rest of his profile was enough to get him bumped off Baltimore’s roster.

The Tigers are in a similar position as the Orioles as far as the future is concerned, as both are in the middle of long rebuilding phases. With Jonathan Schoop returning last week, he and Candelario should be locked into full-time roles somewhere on the diamond, but Detroit has a number of options to fill out the rest of its infield, with Núñez, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, and Isaac Paredes fighting over the other two spots. Castro is the only true shortstop on the roster, so he’s likely penciled in there for now. Goodrum is better cast as a super-utility player, not a starting infielder. Paredes made his major league debut last year, but he doesn’t have any minor league experience above Double-A; it would be a big surprise to see him make the team out of spring training.

Right now, Roster Resource’s depth chart has Núñez penciled in as the everyday first baseman, shifting Candelario over to third base. That might not be such a bad move. In limited innings at the hot corner, Candelario has actually fared quite well defensively. His reputation as a defensive liability from when he was a prospect seems to have faded after reaching the majors.

Jeimer Candelario, career defensive stats
Position DRS UZR OAA
First base 2 -1.5 0
Third base -2 5.0 5

Even though DRS is the lowest on his defensive abilities at third, that -2 is dragged down by a -6 in earned in 2017. In the three years since then, DRS has him at a cumulative +3 runs saved at the hot corner.

If Núñez can show that those issues with plate discipline and in his batted ball profiles were just artifacts of the short season, the Tigers could have a nice pickup to hold down first base until Spencer Torkelson is ready to make his debut. Núñez is also under team control through 2024, making him an affordable stopgap solution. And even if his plate discipline doesn’t improve, he would still provide the Tigers with a potent bat off the bench and serve as a backup plan in case Candelario falters or Miguel Cabrera’s body breaks down even further. For such a low investment, that gamble is well worth taking.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

FanGraphs, stop trying to make Renato Nunez happen. It’s not going to happen!

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Define….”happen?” Better fantasy player than real life. Given the at bats, you can bank 25 homers and decent counting stats. That has value in deeper leagues.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

“it’s hard to believe the team wouldn’t have been able to find at least semi-regular playing time for Núñez at designated hitter or at third base.”

This is insane, he’s an absolute butcher at 3B. His UZR/150 doesn’t look too bad there, but looking under the hood, it seems to be propped up by a 71-inning sample in Tex. Having him watched him play the position, as well as 1B, he’s not a guy I’m particularly interested having in the field.

3 years ago
Reply to  bohknowsbmore

His OAA numbers are not good. They’re not particularly good at 1B either.

For infielders specifically, OAA > UZR/DRS. For outfield it’s much more complicated since OAA is an incomplete measurement there.