Nats select speedy Nuñez in Rule 5 Draft, sign Yepez to minors deal

NASHVILLE – After making it through the entire 2023 season with a Rule 5-drafted pitcher on their major league roster, the Nationals will attempt to do the same with a position player in 2024.

The Nats selected Marlins shortstop Nasim Nuñez with the fifth-overall pick in this afternoon’s Rule 5 Draft, hoping the speedy, defensively gifted, 23-year-old can contribute enough next season to stick and perhaps someday develop into a permanent big leaguer.

Nuñez, who was set to be rated Miami’s No. 6 prospect by Baseball America, is an “elite” defensive shortstop and baserunner who draws walks at a high rate but has yet to hit consistently in the minors. The Nationals understand he’s not ready to play regularly in the majors, but they believe he provides enough skills in specific areas to give him a shot to stay on the roster the entire 2024 season.

“It’s going to be a challenge, because obviously he’s not going to get a lot of at-bats at the big-league level,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “But I think with the coaching staff we have right now, and with the reps he will get other than gametime reps, I think we can really iron out some mechanical issues. … And I think he gives (manager Davey Martinez) an option off the bench: a defensive replacement, elite defensive skills and a baserunner. A guy that can help us win games at the big-league level.”

A second-round pick of the Marlins in 2019 out of Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., Nuñez progressed his way up the minor-league ladder and the organizational prospects list thanks to his legs, his glove and his eyes. He has stolen 183 bases in 351 professional games, including 52 this season at Double-A Pensacola. He is a strong-armed shortstop who was rated Miami’s best defensive infielder by Baseball America. He also has shown an unusual patience at the plate for a player of his age, ranking fourth among all Double-A players this year with 87 walks.

And Nuñez has risen to the occasion on the big stage in his young career, winning MVP honors at this summer’s All-Star Futures Game and earning a spot in the Arizona Fall League Rising Star Game last month.

“The upside is he’s 23 years old and he’s an elite defender,” Martinez said. “I watched some videos on him, and he can catch the ball. I won’t be afraid to put him in to play defense. We’re going to work with him through the situational baseball game. Look, in order to steal bases, you’ve got to get on base. Somehow, he’s learned how to take his walks and move the baseball, beating out some infield hits and things of that nature. He can be a little pest for us.”

The knock on Nuñez, though, is his bat, which has not developed at a comparable pace to his defensive and baserunning skills. Over 585 Double-A plate appearances this season, he hit just .225 and slugged only .286, delivering a mere 18 extra-base hits along the way.

The Nats are hoping his advanced eye is evidence his swing will eventually come around, though the fact the Marlins left him unprotected suggests they were less confident that will happen.

“We think there’s some upside with the bat,” Rizzo said. “The bat is far behind the defense. But a guy we think has more bat in there. Takes his walks. He’s pretty selective at the plate. It was something we really try to get as many toolsy players up the middle of the field as possible, and we thought this was a way to get an elite, toolsy player onto the roster.”

Nuñez, who grew up playing high school baseball in Georgia at the same time as Nationals shortstop CJ Abrams, is excited for the opportunity to prove he can stick in the major leagues, even though it means leaving the organization that drafted him four years ago.

“It was bittersweet,” he admitted in a conference call with reporters. “Coming up through the Marlins’ organization, I created so many bonds with my teammates, the coaches and even the medical staff and everybody else that was there. So it was kind of a wave of emotions, of not wanting to leave but knowing that there's an opportunity for me out there to pursue my dreams.”

The Nationals don’t need Nuñez to suddenly develop into a quality hitter yet. They could probably afford to keep him on the 26-man roster (or major-league injured list) the entire 2024 season to satisfy Rule 5 requirements if he proves skilled enough to pinch-run and serve as a late defensive replacement at shortstop or second base.

Nuñez profiles at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from last year’s Rule 5 pick: Thaddeus Ward. The former Red Sox right-hander was 26 when he reported for spring training, having pitched only seven games at Double-A after returning from Tommy John surgery. Nuñez is three years younger, a position player and perhaps more likely to be used in late-game situations of consequence than Ward.

“I think he probably can contribute at a higher rate, because of the skill set that he has,” Rizzo said. “If he comes as advertised defensively, he’ll be a guy that Davey can plug in there at all defensive positions with a lead, or to steal a big base for you, or to pinch-run for guys. In that regard, it makes it a little easier to absorb a guy that’s not going to be used often.”

The Nationals didn’t lose any players in either the major-league or minor-league portion of today’s draft. Among the notable prospects they left unprotected were Tim Cate, Mason Denaburg, Andry Lara, Jackson Cluff, Kevin Made and Jordy Barley.

They did select four more players in the Triple-A draft: right-handers Samuel Vasquez (Guardians), Wander Arias (Royals) and Daison Acosta (Mets), plus outfielder Moises Gallardo (Athletics).

* The Nationals have agreed to a minor-league contract with former Cardinals first baseman/outfielder Juan Yepez, a source familiar with the deal confirmed.

Yepez, 25, hit .240/.286/.419 in 104 big-league games with St. Louis over the last two seasons but was non-tendered last month. A right-handed hitter, he has played first base, third base, left field and right field in the majors.

Yepez would appear a long shot to make the Nats’ roster out of spring training, with Rizzo seeking to sign a bigger-name first baseman (or designated hitter, moving Joey Meneses to first) via free agency. But they are lacking in first base depth throughout the organization, so Yepez could wind up getting everyday playing time at Triple-A Rochester, a role held this season by veteran Matt Adams.

Yepez’s signing was first reported by MLB Network.

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