(Courtesy of Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger)
It hasn't been a very long career for Eduardo Nunez, but it also certainly hasn't been one short on headlines. Once the heir apparent to Derek Jeter as the Yankees' everyday shortstop, Nunez has been shuffled around various positions and roles, experimented with as an outfielder, dangled as trade bait, and shuttled back and forth between the Majors and Triple-A constantly since first breaking in in 2010. Based on Cash's comments to ESPN NY yesterday, it doesn't look like that trend is going to cease in 2013. Speaking to Andrew Marchand, Cash stated that Nunez will be shifted back to the utility infielder role if he makes the team this season, the same role that was taken from him in May of last season. If that doesn't make a lot of sense to you, good. Because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either.
Most of Nunez's previous moves were facilitated by injuries to other players and the need for backups at those positions. But Nunez himself has also been the cause of some of the role adjustments, or rather his defensive shortcomings have been the cause. Despite having great speed and arm strength, Nunez still hasn't been able to put it all together to become even a marginal defensive player. The Yankees all but admitted this was the reason for his demotion to Triple-A last May, saying they wanted him to focus solely on playing shortstop. Now that tune seems to have changed heading into this season and I don't understand why. If Nunez wasn't strong enough defensively to handle a utility role in 2012, and spent the remainder of the season playing just shortstop, how can the Yankees reasonably expect him to be any better in a utility role in 2013?
For all the defensive gaffes he's made on the field, the Yankees should share some of the blame off the field for how they've managed Nunez's career. He's been tried at shortstop, second base, third base, both outfield corners, and briefly as a DH at the end of last season. Between the constant position changes and the up and down movement between Triple-A and the Majors, Nunez has never had a real chance to settle into one role and focus on fixing the parts of his game that need to be fixed to make him a better insert position here.
In a way, his early career path is reminiscent of those that Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes found themselves on when they first broke in with the Yankees. Those 2 were both shuttled between starter and reliever roles, and between Triple-A and the Majors, with the Yankee decision makers being the driving force behind the moves. It might be a bit of stretch to try to connect a middle infielder to a couple of pitchers, but one thing that remains a constant for all of them and any young player is the need for consistency in what they're doing and the role they're playing so they can get comfortable and figure out what they need to do to be successful. Joba and Phil didn't have that in their first few years and those years ended up being wasted ones that they can't get back, and now Nunez appears to be on a similar path.
Cash didn't even talk about Nunez's latest role change like it was a sure thing, saying, "If he makes our club, it will be at a utility role," and that "how he looks in the spring” could determine whether Nunez makes the Opening Day roster or ends up back in Triple-A as the starting shortstop. It's bad enough the Yankees have plugged him in where they felt they needed him, then yanked him out when they either felt they could use him somewhere else or felt he wasn't getting the job done to their liking. Now they're sending him into Spring Training under those same guidelines and holding his roster spot over his head to boot. At this point, the Yankees probably would have been better off trading him years back when they had the chance.
Having a good utility infielder on your bench is a very valuable asset, and Eduardo Nunez could very well turn out to be a good utility infielder. He's still just 25 years old, he makes a lot of contact and has some pop at the plate, he runs the bases incredibly well, and he has all the physical tools to be an effective defensive player. But he's already been told he wasn't good enough for the job once, and now it sounds like the Yankees are going to test him again after making the decision to limit him to just shortstop work in 2012. These kind of tactics might work with veteran players, but I question the decision to use them in this situation with Nunez, a player who has already struggled in this role and is still trying to find his way as a Major Leaguer. The Yankees constantly jerking Nunez around could end up doing him more harm than good, both in the upcoming season and the future.