Even in what’s amounted to nearly half the season with Renato Núñez as the Orioles’ everyday third baseman in the wake of the Manny Machado trade, the true test of the 24-year-old infielder’s future with the club doesn’t hinge just on his performance.
By that mark, he’s presented himself well. A three-hit game Monday at Fenway Park raised his batting line to .275/.333/.440 in Orioles colors, and his home run in the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader was his seventh in 55 games with the team.
But what the Orioles’ decision-makers will be heartened most by entering this fall is the fact that Núñez has shown the ability to get better as the opportunities arrive. Manager Buck Showalter said Núñez’s improvement is what stands out.
“I’m always careful with stuff like this because it’s some reflection on somewhere else, but [infield coach Bobby Dickerson], he’s really gotten engaged in the defensive side of the ball. He’s always had some life in his bat, and he’s still a young man. What you’re trying to do this year is get him as good as he can be, and he get himself as good as he can be, then that helps with the evaluation part of it — not only the skills, but the aptitude and willingness to get better.”
By all accounts, that’s what he’s done with the Orioles. Núñez, who opened the season as the No. 20 prospect in the Oakland Athletics’ system after hitting 32 home runs in Triple-A last season, was designated for assignment by both the Athletics and the Texas Rangers before the Orioles claimed him and sent him to Triple-A Norfolk. He hit .289 there and was summoned to Baltimore when the Orioles traded Machado at the All-Star break.
It wasn’t long before Núñez was playing regularly at third base, nor was it long before he started to make routine plays more consistently there.
“I’ve been working a lot on everything, and I’ve been working a lot on my defense,” Núñez said. “That’s what I can say I’d be a little more proud of, because I’ve been working a lot with Mr. Dickerson. I definitely am pretty happy about that. … There’s been some stuff that I think I didn’t do all my minor league career. He’s been telling me different stuff, like how third base is not really like a shortstop. You don’t have to catch a ball like a shortstop. At third base, you’ve just got to catch the ball and throw it. The ball is coming hard. That’s some stuff we’ve been working on, and it’s been really good working with him.”
Much of the work is simply about fielding the ball cleanly and making a quick transfer. Most public metrics have Núñez right around average in the field, and while scouting evaluations don’t back that up, the improvement has been noted both inside and outside the organization.
Offensively, Showalter said it only took about a week to see what Núñez was. While his minor league power isn’t there, he’s still a pull-hitter who strikes out in a quarter of his at-bats, but can do some damage when he makes contact.
While not an overwhelming total package, he might have set himself up to be one of what projects to be a small number of stable pieces in the Orioles’ lineup entering next season.
“I just go and give 100 percent and leave the rest for the front office,” Núñez said. “All I can do is play hard. … I’m playing every day, and I’m pretty excited about what’s going to be next year.”