Tuesday, November 02, 2010

2011 Sleeper: Eduardo Nunez SS New York Yankees

posted by Unknown

The 2010 Major League Baseball season is officially over. Congratulation to the San Francisco Giants for winning their first championship since leaving New York for the West Coast. I am certain that few fans (outside of California) expected the Giants to get past the Philadelphia Phillies. Actually winning the World Series was the ultimate fantasy. It makes you want to check the Belmont Sportsbook for the odds. And while it is sad that we won't have much baseball to watch over the winter months, now, in a lot of ways, is when the 2011 Fantasy Baseball season truly begins.

I have missed on plenty of sleepers in the past (you're shocked I'm sure...) and hit on more than my fair share (I despise your doubting chuckles) of undiscovered gems. One of the most galling misses was Robinson Cano. I am an avid follower of the New York Yankees but I did not see him coming. He looked like a mediocre infield prospect without much patience at the plate. A lot like Eduardo Nunez before the last two seasons of rapid development during which he became the Shortstop of the Future(read with a super-cool Space Ghost style voice).

Okay. You may be wondering how I can get excited about a Yankees shortstop prospect when Derek Jeter is as close to a lock to spend his entire career in pinstripes as any active player of the last fifty years. The easy answer is I'm not alone. The Yankees themselves were willing to part with stud catching prospect Jesus Montero in a trade for Cliff Lee back in July, but they refused to sub Nunez for injured infielder David Adams and forced the Seattle Mariners to deal with the Texas Rangers instead. It is easy to assume that Nunez is just a contingency plan in case Derek Jeter does something unexpected like become one of Buck Showalter's Baltimore Orioles. But according to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News the Yankees could have other ideas:
Though no one in the Yankee high command is ever going to even speculate about the future after 2011 - especially with the very sensitive contract negotiations with Jeter about to get underway – but it's becoming increasingly clear the plan is to phase out Jorge Posada next season when his contract expires, opening up the DH slot for Alex Rodriguez, thereby allowing Jeter to move to third, making room for a more athletic shortstop, which would be the 24-year-old Venezuelan, Nunez, who hit .289 with 50 RBI and 23 stolen bases in 118 games at Triple-A Scranton this season.
Yes, that could very well be just ridiculous speculation on the part of Madden but it makes a lot of sense. General Manager Brian Cashman has been adamant about incorporating more younger talent into the 25-man roster. You have seen evidence of this on the pitching staff (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson) and in the outfield (Brett Gardner). Shortstop has not been an area of great need, but even the most fervent Jeter supporters will admit it would be nice to improve the defensive range at the position. Even if Jeter does stick at shortstop Nunez is likely to see an ever increasing role off the bench - subbing at shortstop and third base as New York's aging superstars spend more time at Designated Hitter and resting on the bench.

So pretend you buy that Eduardo Nunez will receive meaningful at-bats. The question then is about his worth to fantasy owners. Obviously, I believe he will have greater value than his cost. He should come very cheaply because most will not expect him to play at all. Nunez was highly touted as a Five-Tool Prospect when the Yankees signed him as an non-drafted free-agent in 2004, as a 16-year old. Nunez is an excellent contact hitter but has struggled with patience and plate discipline in the past. He has shown very little power but has begun to pack solid muscle weight onto his once skinny frame. He is now a very solid 215 pounds. When drafted he was a frail 155 pounds. Adding power to his game is about learning to wait for his pitch, he has the potential to become a 20-plus homerun hitter. Nunez also has plus speed and is learning to become a better base stealer. He has the potential to steal 20-30 bases annually.

The last two seasons have seen massive improvements from Nunez. Some of this is the result of giving up switch-hitting to bat exclusively right-handed. Although there is still a lot of room for improvement, his plate discipline and selectivity at the plate have improved dramatically. He is waiting for his pitch more often and is more willing to take a walk. Anthony Dorunda of Pinstripes Plus (Scout.com's Yankees Site) received this quote:
"He's matured mentally a lot," hitting coach Butch Wynegar said. "I didn't know him much before but from what I've heard and what I've seen now, he's done a nice job of mentally maturing and he's got a better idea of what he's doing up at the plate. He's done a lot of battling with two strikes. whereas last year he didn't battle as well."
Defensively (relevant to playing time questions), Nunez has great hands, a cannon arm and tremendous range. He struggles with consistency and staying focused on the job at hand. He has struggled with taking bad at-bats into the field, but has shown improvement here as well. He routinely makes plays that many shortstops could not. With maturity he should become a Gold Glove caliber (in the very best sense of the phrase) shortstop in the majors.

When you bet on baseball, play in a big money fantasy leagues, or vote independent you embrace risk. Rostering Eduardo Nunez is a risk but a small one relative to price. I place his ceiling as a player somewhere around Robinson Cano's but with much better stolen base potential. He should eventually hit for a good batting average, average power, and provide great speed and excellent defense. Acquiring him in your fantasy league should be a risk well worth taking.

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