Red Sox exploring contract for impending free agent Eduardo Nunez

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 30: Eduardo Nunez
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 30: Eduardo Nunez /

The Boston Red Sox are reportedly interested in extending a new contract to infielder Eduardo Nunez when he becomes a free agent after the season.

Eduardo Nunez may have initially been acquired by the Boston Red Sox as a temporary stopgap but the impression he has made on the franchise has the front office reluctant to let him leave.

The Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato reports that the Red Sox intend to explore a contract with Nunez, who will be a free agent after this season.

It appears the feeling may be mutual. Speaking to reporters prior to Monday’s game in Baltimore, Nunez stated he’s open to a return if the Red Sox want to keep him here.

"“You have to ask the GM if they want me to come back. If they don’t want to sign me, it doesn’t matter. It has to be a mutual goal. But, yeah, I would like to come back,” said Nunez. “It’s a great organization. It’s a great group. Every year you have a chance to go to the playoffs, so that’s a gift.”"

Nunez has been a sparkplug in the Red Sox lineup since a deadline deal brought him over from the San Francisco Giants. He currently leads the team with a .319 batting average and .885 OPS. While he has never profiled as a power bat, his home run numbers were suppressed by playing in pitcher-friendly environments or receiving limited playing time. Nunez hit only four home runs in 76 games for the Giants this season but has hit eight in 37 games with the Red Sox.

It’s no surprise that the Red Sox would have interest in bringing back Nunez. The only problem is where they will put him. He was brought here to solve the third base riddle that plagued the team in the first half, which was prior the decision to promote Rafael Devers to the majors. The top prospect in the organization is now the present and future at the hot corner.

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Nunez has seen the vast majority of his playing time at second base. There were ample opportunities at the position while Dustin Pedroia was sidelined and the veteran’s balky knee has resulted in frequent days off and occasional DH duty since his return. If Pedroia returns healthy next season he’ll hog the majority of the playing time at second base.

A sprained knee currently has Nunez sidelined, although he could return before the end of the current road trip. The Red Sox have rarely had all of their top infielders available at the same time since Nunez was acquired, so finding him sufficient playing time was easy. That doesn’t project to be the case looking ahead to next season and beyond.

The versatile infielder has seen time at shortstop as well, giving the Red Sox the flexibility to use Nunez at three different positions. He could potentially take over the utility role held over the last few seasons by Brock Holt, who Mastrodonato suggests could be a non-tender candidate in the wake of a disappointing season ruined by concussions and a bout with vertigo.

The Red Sox have the 29-year old Holt under control until 2019. If they determine his .175/.286/.208 slash line doesn’t warrant paying him through his second year of arbitration then they could conceivably cut bait with the former All-Star. Even if the front office is confident that Holt can bounce back next year, Nunez offers a higher ceiling to essentially fill the same role.

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Except Nunez may be a bit overqualified for that role. Given how he’s performed in Boston, the 30-year old will be looking to cash in on what could be the last big contract of his career. That could price him out of Boston’s plans if he would be utilized as a bench player who can fill in at three positions. The Red Sox have players at second, third and shortstop who should be playing almost every day, which would make Nunez an expensive insurance policy. Nunez himself is worthy of an everyday spot and may not be inclined to re-sign if he’s not assured of that.

If fellow impending free agent Mitch Moreland doesn’t return next season then the Red Sox could consider playing Nunez at first base. Either that or convince Hanley Ramirez to give up his dreams of being a full-time DH. Both solutions would be a significant downgrade defensively while putting Nunez in the DH role for the majority of games would waste his versatility.

Letting Moreland go only makes sense if the plan is to replace him with a power bat. The lack of a home run threat has been an ongoing issue for a Red Sox team that ranks last in the league in that category. While Nunez has seen an uptick in home runs during his time in Boston, he’s not the answer to that problem. The free agent pool will include sluggers J.D. Martinez and Mike Moustakas, both of whom can provide a 30+ homer threat this team desperately needs. Both are below-average defenders who could be convinced to DH.

The Red Sox could also take a long look at Eric Hosmer, who is on the verge of his second consecutive season with 25 home runs. He provides a bit less pop than the previously mentioned targets but his power could increase with a move to Fenway. Hosmer is a bigger power threat than Moreland and could replace him without sacrificing on the defensive side.

Could the Red Sox splurge on a power bat and still find room to re-sign Nunez? We can’t rule that out. Their frugal spending habits in 2017 should allow them to reset the punitive repeater penalties, freeing them to spend over the luxury tax threshold with limited consequences. Despite those self-imposed restrictions being lifted, Red Sox ownership may still put a limit on how much Dave Dombrowski can spend on long-term contracts. Boston has a number of talented young players who will cost boatloads of cash to retain a few years down the line, so they must plan accordingly.

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Red Sox fans would be thrilled to have Nunez back next season after he endeared himself to the city with a bat that caught fire upon arrival. Reports that the team is interested in bringing him back are an encouraging sign but a power bat would be the bigger priority. Finding room in the payroll for Nunez and another bat is only the first hurdle. Finding adequate playing time for everyone is another that may ultimately make Nunez a casualty of the team’s offseason plans.