Red Sox acquire much needed insurance policy with Eduardo Nunez

MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 05: Eduardo Nunez
MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 05: Eduardo Nunez /

The newest member of the Boston Red Sox won’t be a game changer, but he’ll make them a better team anyway.

Just after 12 am on Wednesday, the Boston Red Sox struck a deal with the San Francisco Giants to acquire third baseman/utility player Eduardo Nunez for a pair of prospects in Shaun Anderson and Gregory Santos. While an evaluation of the return going to San Francisco is certainly worthy of discussion, that won’t be the focus of this article. Instead, I’m interested in looking at exactly what Nunez is capable of how, and how that will help the Red Sox.

In his age-30 season, Nunez brings seven prior years of major league experience and an expiring contract with just $1.56 million owed the rest of the way. Since breaking into the league with the Yankees in 2010, he’s bounced between the big leagues and minors, struggling to find a stable position. It wasn’t until 2016 when he split time with the Twins and Giants that he played more than 112 games in a season.

Now, one thing that has come from an undefined role early in his career is the ability to play virtually anywhere on the diamond. I use the word ability lightly because he’s far from an excellent defender, but he’s played second base, third base, short stop, left field, and right field at times over the past two seasons. That versatility makes him useful, in that you can be comfortable plugging him in and out of the lineup to give certain players a breather down the stretch, but don’t expect him to be valuable defensively. He’s been worth negative defensive runs saved at all positions for his career.

If Nunez was a good defender, he’d look a lot like Ben Zobrist with a poorer bat. Since he doesn’t provide any defensive value, he’s a lot more like a glorified Brock Holt.

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The good news is that he still hits well enough and can steal enough bases to make up for his inefficiency in the field. Since 2015 he’s posted a wRC+ above 100 in each season and has a 101 wRC+ through 76 games this year. He’s also been worth 5 fWAR since 2015, which is exactly 7.5 fWAR better than what the Red Sox have had out of the position in that time. His best asset is really his ability to run, which he only started to put on display when he swiped 40 bags in 2016. He already has 18 this season, and were it not for a recurring hamstring injury, he would probably have more.

Compared to what the Red Sox have at third base right now, which is basically nothing if you don’t count Rafael Devers, he’s a huge upgrade. Still, there is an element of risk in his game that can’t be ignored.

Nunez is a free-swinger that doesn’t strike out a lot, by virtue of his ability to make contact, but there are genuine concerns with the type of contact he’s making. His 54.7% swing rate this season is nearly nine percent higher than league average but has been sustained by an 85.9% contact rate with just a 9.1% strikeout rate. That said, he makes an awfully high amount of soft contact (26.4%), with a well above average 54.9% ground ball rate. That profile hasn’t caught up to him yet (by virtue of his speed), but his offense has regressed this year despite an increase in his batting average on balls in play.

The Red Sox will only have him for the final two months of the season, so there’s a strong likelihood that his regression doesn’t accelerate and any concerns are moot. But if Nunez is pressed into full-time duty, as he has been all year in San Francisco, there’s the off chance that he sputters down the stretch leaving the Red Sox with another ineffective bat and poor defender. For that, the Red Sox had better hope Devers is capable of sticking in the major leagues.

If the rookie stays, it’ll be a direct result of his ability to create offense, which will alleviate a lot of the team’s overall concerns and put Nunez in a position to maximize his contribution. Given his weak defense and average ability to hit, Nunez best fits with the Red Sox as a super-utility or platoon at third. We saw Devers face a lefty-on-lefty matchup for the first time in his major league career Tuesday night, striking out swinging on three pitches. With Nunez, the club can shelter their prized prospect from elite lefties at this stage in his career, and let him comfortably acclimate to a regular role in the major leagues.

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His positional flexibility also gives the Red Sox the opportunity to use him off the bench when he’s not starting at third. He won’t displace Andrew Benintendi in left field, Dustin Pedroia at second, or Xander Bogaerts at short, but he’ll give them all a chance to take a breather when needed. That’s going to be especially important for Pedroia, who at this stage in his career should be alleviating the stress on his body whenever possible, and Bogaerts who has played hurt for the past three weeks.

Aside from serving in the lower-half of a platoon and coming off the bench, there’s really no other way for Nunez to make the Red Sox much better. Yeah, he would be an upgrade over what they’ve had at third for the past four months, but that has a lot more to do with the Red Sox roster than his talent. The reality is, if he’s starting at third base in September, that only means Devers couldn’t stick in his first audition, which is a worst-case scenario at this point. Once the postseason rolls around, he should be the team’s designated pinch-runner and contact bat off the bench. Otherwise, Nunez is just an average hitter at-best with below average defense.

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That sounds harsh, but it doesn’t mean he won’t be a worthwhile acquisition for the Red Sox. He’s a valuable insurance policy at third, with the ability to help out elsewhere if needed. No one’s sold on Devers’ ability to hit at the major league level yet, but with Nunez, we should at least be comfortable giving the 20-year-old a chance to prove he can. That wasn’t the case 24 hours ago.