The remaining 50 games on the Orioles’ schedule will be used to stay competitive, to emphasize that winning still matters, to stay far ahead of last year’s 115-loss pace.
But the evaluating of talent and sorting through the keepers and expendables - and anyone in between - won’t diminish in importance. The task ranks highly on the rebuild scale and it hasn’t slowed.
Manager Brandon Hyde knew little about Renato Núñez in the early days of spring training. Always hit in the minors, out of options, poor defensive reputation.
Núñez didn’t do much to shed light on himself in spring training. Not inside the trainers’ room, where he was treated for a biceps injury.
He hit four home runs in 16 games, so the power flashed, but he also posted a .233 average and .277 on-base percentage and wasn’t able to alleviate any concerns about his glove.
You know the rest, but let’s touch upon it anyway.
The designated hitter spot wasn’t blocked by Mark Trumbo, who’s been on the injured list all season. Núñez ranks second on the team in home runs with 25, one behind Trey Mancini, and he’s tied with Mancini for the lead in RBIs with 63. Hyde is trusting him to fill in at the infield corners. And teams checked on his availability at the deadline - an unlikely chip on the ol’ trading block.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias held onto him. He held onto everybody except Triple-A pitcher Dan Straily, a deal struck only because it no longer could be done in August.
Where does all of this leave Núñez besides the lineup, where he’s spending most of his nights? And where he doubled and scored last night, but also struck out to strand two runners and end the game?
The Orioles are in the process of making that determination. Whether he’s a piece moving forward and how they want to treat the DH spot in 2020.
The club has talked about flexibility and rotating players at DH for many years now and it rarely takes hold. For every argument in its favor, there’s a Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Álvarez or Nelson Cruz.
Is it really so bad to have one player who serves primarily as the DH?
Not if he’s Cruz, and the failure to re-sign him after 2014 hurt the Orioles tremendously. But I digress ...
Not if the roster offers versatility in other players. And certainly not if the DH is a major run producer, as Núñez has been in 2019.
The spot has accounted for 23 of the Orioles’ 141 home runs this season and began last night tied for sixth in the majors. The .815 OPS was fourth, dismissing the National League’s small sample sizes.
In 2018, the Orioles’ designated hitters totaled 25 homers, 66 RBIs and a .681 OPS. Go back to 2015 and it was 14 homers and a .684 OPS. There were 16 homers and a .735 OPS in 2011.
Núñez isn’t planted at DH. He can move around, though there certainly are better defensive options at third and first. He’s working hard to improve.
Whether he’s destined to get most of the DH at-bats in the future might also hinge on the Orioles’ plans for Ryan Mountcastle. What if they can’t settle on a position for him - he’s trying first base and left field at Triple-A Norfolk - and at least for a stretch decide that his bat alone is worth a promotion?
And what if a team steps up with an enticing offer for Núñez over the winter? No one is untouchable. But he’s making only $562,000 this season and isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2021.
My feeling is you hold onto him unless someone comes along with a big-time offer, which I wouldn’t anticipate. Use him mainly as the DH, with occasional starts at a corner, and let him also be a dangerous bat off the bench when he isn’t in the lineup.
Note: Jimmy Yacabonis, optioned after last night’s game, became the first Orioles pitcher to start a game one night and be used in relief the next night since Scott Erickson in 1995, according to STATS.
Erickson started against the Athletics on Aug. 20, 1995 and he got pulled after only 1 2/3 innings. He threw 54 pitches and allowed four runs and six hits with two walks.
Erickson entered in relief the following night in Seattle, working the eighth inning in a 6-0 loss and allowing a solo home run to Ken Griffey Jr.
He wasn’t optioned after the game, however.