The New York Yankee most surprised by Derek Jeter’s announcement that he is retiring after the 2014 season may have been Eduardo Nuñez, the player most often talked about being the successor to the already legendary shortstop.
The Yankees are hoping their homegrown talent can come of age this season to transition into the position Jeter has owned for much of the last two decades.
Nuñez is the Dominican above average utility player who often filled in for Derek Jeter on his days off in the past and handled much of the shortstop duties last year when the Yankee captain was out for all but 17 games.
He is a 26-year-old known for his smarts and talent who has also seen action at third base, second base and the outfield, as well as being the primary pinch-runner off the bench when he doesn’t start.
Jeter, for one, believes Eduardo Nuñez has it in him to possibly succeed him.
“I see no reason why not,” Jeter said in an interview in two years ago. “But you have to continue to work. That’s the key. It’s difficult to get here, but it’s harder to stay. I think he’s doing well in the job that he has now, and if he continues to work, he’s only going to get better.”
It’s uncertain how many games Jeter, who turns 40 in June, will play this year or whether he will come out late in games to prevent another re-injury of the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship series and the complications last season.
But Nuñez will almost surely be called upon to pick up the slack while the Yankees’ brain trust decides whether the job as Jeter’s successor is his to lose.
Eduardo Nuñez wants to be a star
“I want to show what I can do,” Eduardo Nunez has said in the past whenever the topic of replacing Jeter has come up. “It’s different between what you think, and what you show.
“I don’t work to be utility all my life, or to be an average player. No. I work to be the best in my position. When they give me my position one day, I’m going to be ready.”
The Yankees have been grooming Eduardo Nuñez since he was in the minors where he put up respectable numbers in his two full seasons, averaging seven home runs, 53 RBIs, 21 stolen bases, a .306 batting average and a .345 on base percentage.
He played 112 games in the majors in 2011 with 309 at-bats and a .265 batting average.
After splitting time in the minors in 2012, Nuñez was back with the Yankees for much of last season, though he was injured himself.
This spring he will report to camp next week when position players begin working out Feb. 20.
The Yankees have their fingers crossed because Nuñez is also a Godsend to the pocketbook, which the once extravagant New Yorkers are trying to control.
Eduardo Nuñez will earn just over $500,000 this season – a steal compared to the multi-million-dollar salaries of many stars – and, although he is arbitration-eligible next year, he is under contract until 2018.
The Yankees have also had so much confidence in Nuñez that they considered him untouchable in off-season trade negotiations, according to baseball sources.
Scouting reports say Nuñez has a strong throwing arm that compliments his ability to hit for average, hit for power, and good baserunning ability. The knock on him has been his defense and that he tends to swing at too many pitches outside of the strike zone.
But unless the Yankees trade for an experienced shortstop, Eduardo Nuñez is likely to have the path to Jeter’s job to himself. The team’s only other option going into spring training is 31-year-old Brendan Ryan who played shortstop for St. Louis and Seattle but has a career batting average of just .237.
It will be an important spring training for Nuñez because by some accounts in his final season Jeter could also be refashioned as a third baseman, the way Cal Ripken was, especially in light of regular third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s year-long suspension.
That would open up the way for Nuñez to begin taking over shortstop this season with Jeter’s support along side him.
The biggest question hanging over Eduardo Nuñez has been his defense. He made 20 errors between his time at shortstop and third base his rookie season, and he has a career .940 fielding percentage, which is not good.
But he has had the assistance of fellow countryman Robinson Cano who believed enough in Nuñez that he personally hired a coach to help him after his rookie year.
Then Cano took him under his wing in the winter of 2012 when they trained together in the Dominican Republic.
Even though Cano is no longer with the Yankees – he signed with the Seattle Mariners in the off-season, this may have been his best parting gift to his former team.
In the Dominican Republic, he forced Eduardo Nuñez to be on the track every weekday at 7:30 a.m., where they ran for over an hour. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they did baseball drills. After lunch, they hit the weight room for a two to two-and-a-half hours workout.
“I didn’t think big league guys worked like that,” Nuñez told a reporter in the Dominican Republic. “I thought it’s easy once they are there. But they work three times as much as in the minor leagues. Now I know why they’re so good.”
Cano didn’t allow Nuñez to slack off.
“I’d say, ‘I’m tired man. Let’s relax today,’” Eduardo Nuñez recalled. “And he’d say no. ‘Come on. Let’s go.’ He’s very serious when he works.”
In the playoff game in which Jeter broke his leg, it was Nuñez who came in to replace him and later in the series he homered off Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
It made him the first Yankees’ shortstop other than Jeter to hit a home run in a postseason game since Jim Mason in Game 3 of the 1976 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Yankee manager Joe Girardi says he’s never been surprised.
“Nuñez has played well for us,” says Girardi.
“For this team to be successful I think he has to play well. I think he’s a big part of it.”