'Just get better:' Tigers Nunez upbeat and focused despite spring disappointment
Cleveland — You don’t have to explain the humbling nature of baseball to Renato Nunez. After being cut by two of the worst teams in baseball in the span of about five months, he could write a treatise on it.
In 203 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Nunez produced 43 home runs and 121 RBIs with an OPS-plus of 107, and for his efforts was unceremoniously dumped by a Baltimore Orioles team that went 79-143 over those two years.
As if that’s not inglorious enough for a 27-year-old player entering the prime years of his career, the best he could get this offseason was a minor-league contract with the Tigers, a team that lost six more games than the Orioles the last two seasons.
And, for a variety of factors, most of them outside his control, he was among the last players cut this spring.
“This game can get tough on you,” Nunez said Saturday morning. “You have to look at it in a positive way and see what happened, see why you didn’t make the team and try to take advantage of my time to get better.
“That’s all I can do, just get better. And hopefully when I get a chance to play I can prove myself, prove that I can be a productive player.”
Nunez, who was free to sign with any club he wanted, decided to accept an assignment to Triple-A Toledo and stay with the Tigers. He is part of the Tigers’ road taxi squad, traveling on all three legs of this 10-game trip — Cleveland, Houston and Oakland — though he can’t play or even be in the dugout during games.
It’s an odd purgatorial assignment for a player, especially one with five big-league seasons under his belt.
“I come to the field with my uniform on, I want to go out there and play,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s a good time to make adjustments and keep working on my game. It feels great to be here with the players and to be in the clubhouse and practice with the team.
“But it’s not what I want. I want to be playing the game. We’ll see. Hopefully things go my way and I have a chance to play here.”
Nothing went his way this spring. Because of travel visa and COVID-19 protocol issues, he was two weeks late arriving to camp. He was given the chance to win the everyday first base job, but he never looked comfortable at the position.
He didn’t help himself with the bat, either, going 6-for-32 with 13 strikeouts, hitting just one home run and a pair of doubles.
So manager AJ Hinch opted for a first base-by-committee approach to facilitate roster and match-up flexibility. Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop and Harold Castro have made starts at first base through the first seven games.
“I’ve been taking advantage of my time at (the alternate site) in Toledo,” Nunez said. “It’s been a great routine — great group of coaches and players. I’ve just been pretty much working. Working on my swing, my defense. We’ve been playing four-inning games just about every day.
“It’s been a good place to get better.”
Nunez said a couple of teams reached out to him after he was cut, but they offered the same minor-league deal the Tigers did.
“When I was here in spring training, I liked the team and the coaching staff,” Nunez said. “I like the players that we have. I decided to stay here. I really like this place and hopefully I’ll be here sooner than later.”
He can also see how the Tigers have struggled to score. Through seven games, their 24 runs is more than only the Indians in the American League. They rank 11th in batting average (.211) and 10th in slugging (.368).
On top of that, the three-four-five spots in the Tigers order came into Saturday's game just 10 for 71 with two home runs and eight RBIs. Nunez can smell a need.
“I do really want to become an everyday first baseman,” he said. “That’s the goal that I have in my mind. I’ve been working hard on my defense. I want to be a lot more comfortable there than I was in spring training.”
Nunez seemed in good spirits Saturday, no visible traces of bitterness or self-pity. Which speaks to the resiliency of his character, for sure.
When asked where his confidence level was, he said, “It’s got to be high. That’s what you work for every day. That’s why you put the uniform on — you want to be part of that big-league roster and that’s what I am trying to do.
“Not just be part of it. I want to be a guy that can help the team win.”