Orioles manager Brandon Hyde plans on improving the defense of infielder Renato Nunez to keep his bat in the lineup.
It was as if Hanser Alberto slipped into the Orioles starting lineup last year while no one was looking.
How else do you explain the unlikely ascent of a guy who was employed by four teams during the previous offseason, didn’t stick on the O’s roster until March and ended up as the team’s leading hitter?
Even now, if you look at the Orioles’ 2019 statistical page at Baseball-Reference.com, Alberto is not listed in the team’s starting lineup (as of Sunday), though he had 524 at-bats and played in 139 games.
Designated hitter Renato Núñez probably knows how that feels. He had more big league at-bats in 2019 (541) than he did in his previous three seasons and broke out with 31 homers and 90 RBIs in his first year as a full-season starter. If either one of them arrived in camp this past week with even a hint of swagger, it was impossible to detect.
“I am more relaxed,” Alberto said Sunday, “but I’m more hungry to prove that I can do it again … that I can go out there and play hard and get a good result. I feel more comfortable now, but I’m not going to stop working hard because of that.”
He will have a very tough act to follow after spending most of last season leading the major leagues in batting average against left-handed pitching. He ended up ranked second at .398, just four points behind Boston Red Sox star J.D. Martinez.
Núñez also said it was easier to enjoy the offseason, but he still worked hard to get ready for training camp and the challenge of improving on run-production numbers he couldn’t realistically imagine a year ago at this time. He hopes to show there’s a lot more where that came from, but needs to improve in several areas to be a complete power guy.
“Everything," he said. “I still have to learn more about hitting, be a little more selective, not swing at everything. Try to have a little more of a plan going to home plate. Hopefully, just do better than last season.”
They both figure to be everyday players this season, but neither knows yet exactly what his role will be when the new season begins. Alberto played all over the place last year and Núñez ended up spending most of his time as the designated hitter. Things might not change much, but Núñez is preparing to play the corner infield positions he played sparingly last season.
“Of course I’d like to play more defense, but — as I always say — I’ll be ready to play any position they want me to play," he said. “I’m only here to help the team win. Wherever they want me to play, I’ll be ready to go over there.”
Manager Brandon Hyde still characterizes Núñez’s defense as a work in progress, but said there was plenty of that over the course of last year.
“Where he came from in spring training to where he was at the end of the year was a night-and-day difference," Hyde said. “We’re just going to continue to work on it, because we love the bat. He’s an offensive force and hopefully he’ll be able play defense for us.”
Alberto mostly split time between second and third base. He could get more time at second in the wake of the deal that sent Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins, but Hyde clearly likes the fact that he can also plug Alberto in at third base.
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“I’m okay with switching positions,’’ Alberto said. “Obviously, at second base I’m a little more comfortable, but I don’t mind playing anywhere.”
If the departure of Villar left a hole in an offense that ranked 22nd in the majors in runs scored last year, Alberto said he feels that the Orioles can still take a step forward at the plate this season.
“We’ve got a pretty good offense," Alberto said. “We know we can do the little things. You know what you have to do. ... What you have to focus on, so let’s see. We know we’re going to miss him, but you have to move forward.”
Around the horn
>> Reliever Mychal Givens recovered enough from a bout of the flu to take the field for Sunday’s workout, but Hunter Harvey remained at home. “Hunter’s still a little under the weather,” Hyde said. “With this going around, we’re just trying to keep guys away who aren’t feeling well. He did feel better today than he did yesterday, so we’re hoping that continues so he can be out here in the next couple days.”
>> Hyde said he expects everybody to be in camp for Monday’s first full-squad workout. The only position players who have not already arrived at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex are Chris Davis, Stevie Wilkerson and Ramón Urías.