During his first homestand at Camden Yards last summer, Renato Núñez misplayed a ball at third and heard what everyone was thinking.
"I'd make some mistakes, and some guys in the stands, they were yelling, 'Where's Manny?'" Núñez said.
Machado left third base for shortstop at the beginning of that season, but when he left the Orioles for good in the July trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was Núñez, an early-season waiver claim who took his spot.
The ensuing year —he made his Orioles debut a year ago Saturday — hasn’t created a replacement for Machado at Camden Yards, especially at third base. But it revealed a player who has been neck-and-neck with Trey Mancini as the most productive hitter on the team in that span as the team’s regular designated hitter
"It's been great, all the learning and the process, and to still be here," said Núñez, who before he was claimed by the Orioles last May was an up-and-down player with the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers.
Through Friday, Núñez has trailed only Mancini in terms of production at the plate in what amounts to a full year with the Orioles. He has a 110 wRC+ with 28 home runs while batting .258/.318/.477 in 150 games, making him a better-than-average bat, albeit one without a position.
To manager Brandon Hyde, the 25-year-old Núñez is still just scratching the surface of what he can be offensively.
“He’s obviously showing some big power, and I think he’s still finding his way as a hitter a little bit, and I think that he can improve as a hitter,” Hyde said. "His batting practice is one of the best that you’re going to see where he just drives the ball to the 2-irons in right-center, really stays in the middle of the field.
"At times during the games, he gets a little quick and he looks like he's trying to go pull side power. We all feel like once he commits himself to the middle of the plate, which he does on occasion, that it's going to open up the field for him even more and he's going to become a better hitter. I think that's going to happen here shortly. Yeah, I think he still has a lot of room to progress, and he's having a nice year."
His steady production is a testament to the comfort instilled in him, last year by former manager Buck Showalter and this year by his successor, Brandon Hyde.
Núñez had four hits in his first seven games when Showalter summoned him into his office to calm his nerves.
Núñez said: "He called me to his office and was like, 'Really appreciate this opportunity that we're giving you, relax and play your game. You're going to be playing third base every day, so learn from that.' I think when he talked to me, I felt much better. I put the pressure to the side and played my game."
After that talk in New York as July turned to August, Núñez hit .288 with an .815 OPS and seven home runs to set up himself well for a role in 2019. Showalter’s departure, along with that of executive vice president Dan Duquette, made for a whole new set of eyes for Núñez to impress.
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He said just like that meeting with the former manager, the new brass told him in his spring training meeting exactly what they expected from him.
"It was a great conversation too, and it gave me a lot of confidence," he said. "I just told them that I'm ready to play every day, whatever you want me to play."
It turned out that Núñez’s role wasn’t often going to be in the field. With Chris Davis manning first base and Rio Ruiz brought in to provide what’s proven to be standout defense at third base, Núñez was given a role he’s never had before as the team’s primary designated hitter. Just nine of his 74 starts have been in the field, all at first base.
He’d never had that role at any point in his minor league or major league career, and kept an everyday job even as he struggled badly in late April and early May. He validated Hyde and the Orioles’ confidence in him by going on a power tear once he regained his swing, hitting eight home runs in a 12-game span from May 20 to June 1. With his 20th home run on July 6 in Toronto, Núñez joined Machado and Boog Powell as the only Orioles with 20 home runs before the All-Star break at age 25 or younger.
"I feel like since I was a little kid, I had that swing to put the ball in the air and hit it out," Núñez said. "Whatever I can do to help the team, I'm 100-percent for the team."
As his Orioles career progresses through the second half of 2019 and likely beyond, Núñez said his goal is to improve what he does on the bases to be a more aggressive and effective baserunner. Hyde has Núñez's defense as an area of improvement for the club, and said
“He’s working on his defense every single day,” Hyde said. “Even though I’m not putting him out there, his defense is a priority, and you’re going to start seeing him play more on the field defensively.”