As a 23-year-old breaking into the major leagues, infielder Eduardo Nuñez was mature enough to recognize the challenge greeting him at Yankee Stadium.
Derek Jeter started at shortstop on Aug. 19, 2010, the day Nuñez debuted. Robinson Cano was at second. Alex Rod riguez did not play, but the third baseman and three-time MVP lurked as another roadblock to Nuñez’s path to regular playing time.
“When I was in the beginning of my career, [the Yankees] had so many others — Jeter, A-Rod, Cano,” Nuñez said before the Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins, 2-1, on Saturday at the Stadium. “I understood that. Everybody knew that.”
It often was said that Nuñez had the tools at the plate to succeed in a regular role, and he has proved that to be true in his third season with the Twins. Nuñez, who has started 58 of his 64 games, mostly at shortstop and third base, is hitting .310 with nine home runs, 28 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.
His 119 weighted runs created-plus — an advanced statistic that measures offensive productivity, with 100 as league average — is tied with Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor for sixth among qualified shortstops, according to fangraphs.com. Nuñez ranks ahead of the Mets’ Asdrubal Cabrera (103) and the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius (96).
“He’s a talented guy who has gotten an opportunity,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said, “and I think that his experiences that he’s gained through his time with New York and being with Minnesota the last couple of seasons, he’s gotten enough time under his belt where . . . he’s just finally gotten a chance and he’s taken advantage.”
Part of that experience was watching and learning from Jeter, Rodriguez and Cano. Those three shared advice — to stay patient and keep working, essentially — that helped Nuñez.
“You want to play every day,” said Nuñez, who went 0-for-4 Saturday but drove in two runs Friday. “That’s tough for your career, but at the same time, it’s fun. You learn from them. They’re guys you see when you grow up, and now they’re your teammates. That’s good at the same time.”
While Nuñez’s bat has been a rare bright spot for the last-place Twins (23-51), he has not eliminated the defensive woes that irked Yankees fans. He has committed only four errors in 121 chances (.967 fielding percentage) at shortstop but has made five errors in 70 combined chances (.929) at second and third.
But in Minnesota, Nuñez has not had perennial All-Stars around him, heightening the scrutiny of each play.
“They’re so good, so when I had an error, ‘Oh, my God. He made an error.’ But we won the game,” Nuñez said of Jeter, Rod riguez and Cano. “The error didn’t cost anything, but people used to see the error. Here it’s a little more laid-back. Errors are part of the game.”
Despite his inconsistency in the field, Nuñez is a top candidate to represent the Twins in the All-Star Game next month. Not bad for someone in his first season as an everyday player.
“Everyone wants to be in the All-Star Game, no matter if you’re a young guy or old guy,” Nuñez said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to think about that. I just want to do my thing and see what happens.”