I’m going through one of those periods in which I’m frustrated with Joe Girardi. I talked about the bunting yesterday, and how self-defeating the practice is. Now, I would like to talk about how self-defeating Eduardo Nunez is.
Nunez has now made 11 starts. Jorge Posada has started just nine of the last 20 games going back to the whole batting eighth thing. In his absence the designated hitter at-bats have gone to Alex Rodriguez (four games), Derek Jeter (four games), and Andruw Jones (three games). (Mark Teixeira also was the DH in one game during this stretch, but Posada was the first baseman, so this is just a rearrangement of the furniture, not at-bats changing hands.) Nunez has started eight of those games, making him, for all practical purposes, Posada’s platoon partner.
Normally, I am the one leading the Yankees-need-to-get-younger cheering section. If I thought Nunez had potential, I would be all for the manager making him a regular part of the offense. However, in those eight games, Nunez has been terrible, going 4-for-30 with one extra-base hit, a triple, and one walk. Another thing I would normally never do is judge a player based on eight games, but I’m beginning to get it through my overlarge, thick head that this is who Nunez really is.
I was impressed when Nunez hit .322/.349/.433 at Trenton two years ago. Trenton is an impossible place to hit, one of the most difficult parks in all of baseball. In retrospect, he didn’t walk, and he didn’t show more than a little power. If he was to carry that production forward he would have to do it on batting average alone, and that almost never happens. There are perhaps three players currently in the majors who have been able to do that with anything approaching consistency—Ichiro Suzuki, Freddy Sanchez, and Placido Polanco. If you want to throw in Michael Young or Howie Kendrick, I won’t argue too strongly. Even if you do, that’s five out of the whole major leagues.
When Nunez followed up by hitting .289/.340/.381 at Scranton last year, that should have hinted in a big way that expectations should be ratcheted downwards. It was of a piece with his work at High-A Tampa, but more importantly, it doesn’t leave you much room for projecting hitting in the majors. The PECOTA projection system called for Nunez to hit .276/.300/.371, which is better than his current .224/.255/.367, but it’s not good.
Girardi isn’t wrong to want to give his ancient infielders an occasional day out of the sun. There is also nothing wrong with trying to squeeze in an extra right-handed bat when a left-hander is on the mound. However, what we are seeing here is that there is a price the Yankees are going to pay when they pursue this policy, because Nunez is not know, and likely never will be, a big-league regular.
I’m not suggesting that the Yankees ditch Nunez or discontinue their policy of rest for the regulars, because there aren’t a great many replacements to go around. "Hard-hitting reserve infielder" is almost an automatic contradiction in terms. However, if they want to spike the lineup against lefties, a more sensible move would be to seek out a right-handed hitting outfielder to add to the bench in place of Chris Dickerson. Almost any outfielder worthy of his position is going to hit left-handers with more authority than Nunez. The Yankees have Justin Maxwell stashed down at Scranton, where he is hitting .260/.358/.588 with 16 home runs. Maxwell has always been a good athlete capable of playing all three outfields, but he has had trouble establishing himself in the big leagues because he’s got two "prones" against him, strikeout and injury.
He and Dickerson would probably make a decent left field platoon for some team, but the Yankees have Brett Gardner and Andruw Jones. Gardner makes Dickerson redundant, but if the Yankees brought in Maxwell in place of the latter, then Gardner and Posada could sit against lefties while Jones and Maxwell played. That’s a far more sensible arrangement than they have now, and one that would help minimize the impact of having Nunez in the lineup. It would also keep Jones out of left field. It seems odd to say this of a ten-time Gold Glove winner, but fielding just isn’t Jones’ bag anymore.
I pause to note that none of this is relevant to Eric Chavez and won’t change when he comes back, because he’s left-handed. I should also observe that if the Yankees choose to cram up their DH spot with a better hitter, they will have less flexibility but might be better overall. Finally, I will note that the Nunez-Jeter combo is especially pernicious, seeing as it adds a non-hitter to the lineup while preserving another. Maybe the only real solution is less rest.