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Pinch hitting: Will Wang

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Today’s Pinch Hitter is Will Wang, a 34-year-old attorney who lives in Queens, grew up as a Yankees fan in the 80’s, and cut class at Bronx High School of Science to attend his first game at the old Yankee Stadium. “My favorite player was Rickey Henderson, and of course, I was huge on Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield,” Will wrote. “… I was an emotional wreck for a week when Mariano tore up his knee in Kansas City. I would say Mariano is my current favorite player.”

For his post, Will chose not to focus on his favorite player, but on a familiar face who’s still a bit of an unknown. He calls his post, The Eduardo Nunez Conundrum.

[2]In 2013, the Yankees must figure out what they have in Eduardo Nunez. Nunez turns 26 during the ’13 season and is at a crossroads in his career. He is no longer a prospect and not yet a veteran. For Nunez, 2013 will be career-defining.

Is he a starting MLB shortstop? Is he a utility player? The Yankees just don’t know. Nunez reached the majors in 2010, played the utility role for 112 games in 2011, shifting back and forth between SS (50 games), 3B (40), and 2B (16), and then had his 2012 season almost completely derailed by a thumb injury and recurring defensive woes.

Many Yankee fans have been impressed with what he brings to the table offensively. He makes good contact (Nunez led the IL in hits in 2010 and in 491 career MLB PA, has only 51 Ks, a 10% k rate), has some pop, and has dynamic speed (38 steals in 180 games). Of course, on the defensive side, he has been complete disaster (in 2011, 14 errors in 50 games at short). Heading into 2013, the Yankees said they were committed to Nunez as a shortstop only and did not view him as a utility infielder, until January 10 when Cashman said if Nunez was going to make the team, it would be as a utility infielder.

Nunez is blocked at his natural position by one of the greatest Yankees ever. We know that Derek Jeter is still capable of performing at a high level, but we don’t know for how much longer. The Yankees need to give Nunez 300-plus at bats this season and allow him adequate time in the field to prove he isn’t as bad defensively as people think he is. The purpose of this extended playing time would be two-fold: (1) redeem Nunez’s trade value as a cheap, still relatively young, under salary control, middle infielder who can hit; and (2) answer the question of whether Nunez can man the position when the inevitable time comes for Jeter to retire or change positions.

Based on the current makeup of the 2013 Yankees roster, Nunez should be the backup SS/2B and an everyday player against left handers. The Yankees could rest Jeter by allowing him to be the right-handed DH, letting Nunez start at shortstop against lefties. In that role, Nunez could acquire 250 at-bats over the course of a full season. In 200 career plate appearances against lefties, Nunez has hit .298/.332/.436.

Of course, the potential midseason return of A-Rod from injury will complicate the ability to find Nunez at-bats (assuming A-Rod and Youk share 3B/DH).

[3]In 2011, when Jeter went down with a calf injury, Nunez was given consistent playing time between June and August, which amounted to 200 plate appearances, for which Nunez hit for a slash line of .301/.350/.421 with three homers and 13 steals. The highlight of that period was the July 1-2 series with the Mets in Citi Field, where Nunez went 7-for-8, with three doubles and one home run. In the 2012 postseason, in two ALCS starts, Nunez managed a triple in Game 4 and a home run off Justin Verlander in Game 3.

Nunez brings speed and contact to the lineup, things the lineup was clearly missing in 2012. In 2013, the regular additions of Ichiro/Gardner/Nunez would change the entire dynamic of the lineup. No longer will fans have to watch the Yankees go station to station, hoping for the three-run home run. We will see more first to thirds and scoring on a double from first. Nunez can be a major part of Yankees “Smallball 2013.”

What can Eduardo Nunez become? Looking throughout baseball for comparison points for Nunez, I come across two potential comparable players. I think it is fair to say that Nunez, handed a full-time job can out-produce the offensive numbers of Alcides Escobar (probably with better power).

Alcides Escobar (Born 1986):
3 full seasons (1936 PA) .266/.307/.356, 14 HR, 75 steals
Ian Desmond (Born 1985):
3 full seasons (1849 PA) .271/.313/.424, 47 HR, 64 steals
Eduardo Nunez (Born 1987):
3 partial seasons (491 PA) .271/.318/.384, 7 HR, 38 steals

Escobar is one year older than Nunez but is an undisputed far superior defender. Nunez’s offensive development ceiling is probably Ian Desmond (two years older than Nunez) with less slugging and less power. No one thinks Nunez will ever develop the power to hit 25 home runs and lead all MLB shortstops in OPS the way Desmond (.845 OPS) did in 2012, but Nunez certainly has a capable bat. From a defensive perspective, in Desmond’s first full season as the Nationals’ shortstop, he committed a ghastly 33 errors himself. With a full season of Nunez, you might expect the same or worse.

The Yankees need to find out what they have in Nunez. He is a dynamic player, and we have seen glimpses of what he is capable of. Whether he can be that dynamic player on a consistent basis is something we don’t know yet because he hasn’t been given that chance.

Give him that chance. Besides, don’t we all love hearing Girardi say “Nu-Ni?”

Associated Press photos