The early years of the Orioles’ rebuild were always going to be about weathering the losses while determining which of the players participating in them were worth keeping until the team returned to contention. Renato Núñez became the latest to receive a verdict Friday.
With the Orioles wanting to add six Rule 5 draft-eligible prospects to their 40-man roster and having only five open spots, they designated Núñez for assignment to create the last opening. The 26-year-old had led Baltimore in home runs since his team debut in July 2018, including 31 in 2019 and a team-best 12 in 2020. No Oriole has had his name in the starting lineup more often in Brandon Hyde’s first two years as manager than Núñez.
Yet, 179 of those 189 starts came at either first base or designated hitter, positions where the Orioles figure to have Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini and Chris Davis get the majority of playing time in 2021, with a collection of young outfielders possibly filling the latter, as well. With Núñez eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, the Orioles had already decided not to tender him a contract by the Dec. 2 deadline, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Friday, as the DFA expedited that process and opened a roster spot for a prospect.
“He’s a quality player and a good hitter and a big power threat,” Elias said. “Ours is not the ideal roster for him in terms of a fit. We have several players that play the defensive spots that he does and sort of fill that profile for us.
“We certainly appreciate his contributions here, and wherever he ends up, we’ll continue to root for Renato.”
Whether such moves follow for other mainstays of this portion of the Orioles’ rebuild is yet to be seen. Fan-favorite infielder Hanser Alberto is eligible for arbitration for a second time. The Orioles claimed former Gold Glove second baseman Yolmer Sánchez off waivers earlier this offseason, and one of the prospects added to the roster Friday was Rylan Bannon, one of the pieces acquired in the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and a player who Elias said will be “in the mix” for a job in the infield come spring training.
Pedro Severino, who has gone from a backup for the Washington Nationals to Baltimore’s primary catcher, is entering his first year of arbitration and thus is due a significant raise. He’s been productive each of the last two seasons before tailing off at year’s end, and with the Orioles having another capable catcher in former top prospect Chance Sisco — not to mention current top prospect Adley Rutschman waiting in the wings — Severino could be viewed as expendable.
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Of pitchers still with the organization, only Paul Fry has more appearances over the last two years than Shawn Armstrong, who as a first-time arbitration-eligible middle reliever could be supplanted by a cheaper alternative.
Like Núñez, those three players joined the Orioles via waiver claims, though they were added to the organization under Elias’ regime, which Núñez’s arrival predated. Each joined a franchise amid a transition, one picking players out of the waiver wire in hopes that some would stick. All four have been productive players during their time in Baltimore, but Friday’s move offered a reminder that as the Orioles introduce more pieces of their farm system to the majors, there will be less space for those added from the waiver wire.
The Orioles waited until Friday’s 6 p.m. deadline to announce the roster additions, likely using that time to explore other organizations’ interest in trading for Núñez. By designating him for assignment, they have a week to continue to do so. Come Thanksgiving weekend, he will either have a new club or be a free agent.
The decision differs somewhat from last year’s trade to send infielder Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins at the non-tender deadline. Villar plays with a diverse skill set beyond the effectively one-dimensional, power-based game Núñez showed in his time in Baltimore. He was also due to become a free agent at season’s end, whereas whatever team lands Núñez will have four years of team control.
It’s possible the Orioles manage to mimic that deal and exchange Núñez for a low-level minor leaguer. Had they simply non-tendered Núñez in two weeks, the Orioles would’ve gotten nothing for him beyond cost savings, as would be the case should they make that choice with any of their remaining arbitration-eligible players. Even in tendering them a contract, the Orioles could still trade them, as they did in sending right-hander Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels days after last year’s deadline.
Between this season’s trades to send out three veteran members of their bullpen in Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro and Friday’s decision on Núñez, the Orioles have already started whittling their pool of arbitration-eligible players. It shouldn’t be a surprise if that continues in the next two weeks.
“This is part of the business of cycling guys in and cycling them out,” Elias said. “It’s just kind of what we do.”