Orioles manager Brandon Hyde wasn’t ready last month to hand Austin Hays the center field job on opening day. No amount of prodding from the media was going to soften his stance. It was too soon to begin construction of a 26-man roster to be unveiled in late March.
The story is the same regarding Renato Núñez.
Hyde won’t say that Núñez is going to be the primary designated hitter next season. But he speaks as if Núñez is on the team.
“I think it’s way too soon to think about, really, anything right now when it comes to how we’re going to shuffle our roster and what it’s going to look like in spring training,” Hyde said before Saturday’s game in Boston.
“There’s going to be a lot of movement between now and February. Noonie is a piece for us going forward and he’s had a really nice offensive year. He’s done some really good things with the bat and things that aren’t easy to do, so we’re excited about his offensive performance and we think it can improve also.”
There’s no need to read between any lines to get the sense that Núñez is a keeper unless executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is enticed by an offer.
Funny how Núñez is viewed in some circles as a potential trade chip. He arrived at spring training out of minor league options and with a poor defensive reputation, and a biceps injury cost him important at-bats and exposure in front of a new regime.
If put down on paper that Núñez would hit 31 home runs for the Orioles, they would have gladly taken it and figured out how to move him around the lineup.
The process unfolded over the summer, with Núñez ranking second on the team with 31 homers and 90 RBIs and third in doubles with 24. He was the designated hitter in 109 games, the first baseman in 21 and third baseman in eight.
The streakiness also helped to define his season. Cold spells and power outages followed by tape-measure home runs that came in bunches.
Núñez homered on Aug. 21, didn’t hit another until Sept. 8 and didn’t hit another until Sept. 27. Of course, he belted a tie-breaking 433-foot shot the following day.
Part of his appeal is a $562,000 salary and a first year of arbitration that doesn’t arrive until 2021. A rebuilding team covets the controllability and payroll relief.
Mark Trumbo won’t be in spring training. Ryan Mountcastle seems more likely to begin 2020 at Triple-A Norfolk, with a promotion coming sometime in the summer if he keeps hitting this way. There’s no real complication with making Núñez the primary designated hitter, with the occasional appearances at the infield corners.
The decision to shut down Hays rather than send him to the Arizona Fall League opened a roster spot for outfielder T.J. Nichting, who officially was assigned Tuesday to the Surprise Saguaros.
Nichting, a ninth-round pick in 2017 out of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, appeared in 105 games with Double-A Bowie and batted .256/.293/.375 with 18 doubles, three triples, six home runs and 34 RBIs
The Orioles sent Hays home because a September call-up provided the necessary number of plate appearances.
Note: The Orioles made another change in their baseball operations department earlier this week that involved Michael Silverman, who won’t be retained next season as major league video operations manager..
Silverman held the job since 2008.