Slugger Renato Nunez sticks with contract; Tigers believe he can help down the road

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Tampa, Florida – Offsetting news Monday that the Tigers had lost pitching coach Chris Fetter to COVID protocol, manager AJ Hinch revealed that first baseman Renato Nunez has decided to stick with the Tigers rather than pursue work with another club.

Nunez, a right-handed hitting first baseman who next week turns 27, did not make the north-bound Tigers roster and, per his contract, could have opted out of the minor-league deal he signed with Detroit in February.

Nunez has power the Tigers desperately seek but ran into a fatal numbers game when Hinch decided to carry five outfielders on the 26-man Opening Day roster.

Renato Nunez.

Nunez hit 43 home runs for the Orioles in 202 games spanning the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He batted .200 in a dozen Grapefruit League games this spring, with one homer.

“This is great news for us,” Hinch said. “We wanted him to stay -- we thought this was a good place for him and not a closed door. It took some recruitment with his agent, and with Renato, and our players chipped in and wanted him to stay.

“But he loves this team and he loves the fit. He wants to be part of the solution, and we’re happy with his decision.”

Baddoo makes them pay

High heat inside is one way in which big-league pitchers can put away rookie hitters who might have gotten a bit big for their baseball britches.

Domingo German, and his Yankees catcher, Gary Sanchez, figured Monday with a 1-2 count on Akil Baddoo that a fastball above the belt and tight to the plate’s inside might be just the trick to teach a spring-camp star his place.

Baddoo didn’t care for the seminar. He instead whistled his bat through the zone and ripped German’s mid-90s four-seamer on a long, high arc that landed inside the foul pole, and in the right-field seats at Steinbrenner Field.

It was Baddoo’s team-leading fifth home run of spring camp. It came by way of a 22-year-old, left-handed hitter’s rather stunning knack for playing older than his age, and older than his lean years of minor-league experience seemingly should allow.

“I’ve got to be careful not to over-dramatize, but 95 (mph) inside, two strikes on him, and that swing should work next week in Detroit just like it does in Tampa,” Hinch said after Baddoo’s homer triggered what became a 5-2 victory over the Yankees. “The advanced (scouting) reports will tighten up a bit. They’ll start to pitch him differently.

“But we shouldn’t count this kid out as we put another challenge in front of him. We’ll let his performance dictate his playing time.”

Baddoo, of course, has been the most fascinating Tigers story from a spring camp that ends Tuesday when Hinch’s gang goes to Detroit for Thursday’s season-opener against the Indians at Comerica Park.

He was supposed to have been a gamble, a guy with long odds of making the team and greater probabilities that he would complicate Hinch’s life and roster.

That’s the normal path taken by Rule 5 draft picks, which Baddoo was in December when the Tigers swiped him from the Twins – on the condition they carry him on their 26-man, big-league active roster for all of 2021.

Fat chance there when Baddoo had never played above Single A on the Twins farm.

But he’s aboard Tuesday night’s flight to Detroit. He is taking with him those five Grapefruit League home runs, as well as a .325 batting average and 1.210 OPS. He can play center field, or a corner spot, and he can run.

On a team that’s looking long and hard for offense, Baddoo not only has found a roster spot, he’s being counted on to help.

“I’ve been around a lot of young players who come into the big leagues,” Hinch said. “Everybody’s a rookie at some point. The only way to find out about a young player is to trust ‘em and play ‘em.”

There will be traps ahead, beginning, maybe, with Thursday’s frosty weather report, which tends to make bats feel like ice picks.

More of a challenge will be those hard-throwing, finesse-wielding, scouting-wise pitchers who will be advised on how to pitch Baddoo.

He can expect something close to the mix he saw in his next two at-bats Monday. In the fifth, with one-time Tigers reliever Chad Green working for the Yankees, Green got Baddoo in a 1-1 count, then flung three consecutive curveballs at a kid hitter who swung at all three, fouling off one, and missing the last one for strike three.

In the seventh, against Michael King and with Baddoo sitting in a 2-2 count, King beat him with a backdoor cutter for a called third strike.

“That’s the next adjustment,” Hinch said, speaking of the ways in which scouts and pitching plans will team up to attack a rookie hitter. “But some things don’t change.

“They’re going to carve up Candy, and Miggy, and Willi,” Hinch said, speaking of Baddoo’s lineup mates, Jeimer Candelario, Miguel Cabrera, and Willi Castro. “We’re not going to put the spotlight on Baddoo and put pressure on him.

“We’re going to believe in him, put some challenges in front of him, and let him play.

“He can prove people right or wrong, but he’s going to be given the opportunity to do it.”

Cabrera comes through

Home runs were the story Monday for Hinch’s team as Baddoo had a long-ball partner in Miguel Cabrera.

In the fifth, after Victor Reyes hit a ground-rule double and Daz Cameron walked, Cabrera got a 96-mph outside fastball from Green that Cabrera hit on a line into the right-field pavilion.

It came as no shock to Hinch, who had spoken earlier Monday about Cabrera and about his nearly exclusive fixation on hitting to the opposite field during spring camp. It’s the way in which Cabrera likes to tune up for a season, or even during a single batting practice, locking in his right-field swing and then more easily shifting to his pull-side stroke.

“He knows time’s ticking when it comes to getting ready,” Hinch said, speaking of Cabrera’s dress-rehearsals for Opening Day. “He knows how to dial it up. And he’s taken some pretty good swings.

“He had shown some frustration last week,” Hinch said, explaining why he pulled Cabrera after the fifth. “I wanted to get him out of the lineup on a high notes.”

Few strikes, few worries

Another player polishing Monday for April was Tigers starter Jose Urena. He has some buffing yet to do, as was confirmed by five walks in 4-2/3 innings, and his 78 pitches, only 36 of which were strikes.

Not that his skipper was overly concerned. Not when Urena’s sinker-slider combo was otherwise miserable for Yankees batters, who got only one hit against him – a double by Giancarlo Stanton.

“His ball was moving all over the place,” Hinch said, and it was a pure tribute from the skipper. “He pitched around a few walks. He’s always a pitch away with the heavy sinker and ground balls.

“In all, he accomplished everything we wanted. It was good to see him pitch around some traffic.”

Urena might pen a thank-you note to Tigers shortstop Harold Castro. In the fourth, after back-to-back walks to Aaron Hicks and Stanton, Clint Frazier smoked a ground ball up the middle. Castro wheeled to his left, dived, snared the ball and glove-flipped to Isaac Paredes at second, who relayed for a double play.

Urena was followed Tuesday by Derek Holland, who pitched his customary inning of shutout relief.

Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, and Miguel Del Pozo finished, with only Farmer allowing a run, on a homer from Thairo Estrada.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.