'It's my time': Nuñez vies to prove self in '21
DENVER -- Call 2020 a redshirt year for Rockies rookie catcher Dom Nuñez.
After appearing in 16 games in 2019, Nuñez, 26, spent the ’20 season either playing games at the alternate training site, or with the Major League team practicing, warming up pitchers before and during games, and being required to concentrate as if he would be called into a game. But he was like a college “redshirt” -- an athlete who practices but doesn’t appear in games. The Rockies never activated him.
The COVID-19 protocols made for a lonely year for those allowed to play, so imagine what it was like to not have the reward of game action. Nuñez has quite a bit of stored-up baseball to unfurl in 2021, when he will have his biggest chance yet to earn Major League playing time.
“It was a challenge all year, don’t get me wrong,” Nuñez said. “My mind was tested more than it’s ever been tested in this game.
“I’m grateful for the test because I feel like now, after this, what else can happen?”
A long climb was made longer by the pandemic. Will Nuñez prove worth the wait?
Elias Díaz -- who's entering his age-30 season having played 276 games combined between the Pirates and Rockies -- and Nuñez are the only catchers on the Major League 40-man roster. The Rockies non-tendered former starter Tony Wolters, and saw Drew Butera sign a Minor League contract with the Rangers.
“Dom Nuñez is going to be given a real opportunity to see what he can do on the big league level,” Rockies manager Bud Black said.
The Rockies drafted Nuñez in the sixth round in 2013 out of a successful Elk Grove (Calif.) High School program as a third baseman. The Rockies converted him a year later, which meant he repeated Rookie-level Grand Junction, and spent two seasons each in Class A and Double-A.
Nuñez’s first breaks came in 2019, when he posted a .921 OPS and 17 home runs in 61 games at Triple-A Albuquerque. In August that year, the Rockies released Chris Iannetta and summoned Nuñez.
The left-handed-hitting Nuñez homered off the D-backs’ Yoan López in his debut. With a knack for hitting even the hardest fastballs, Nuñez went 4-for-15 with two doubles and the homer in his first five games. But opponents quickly noticed he flailed at offspeed pitches and reduced him to 3-for-24 with two doubles and a homer in his final 11 contests.
The Rockies’ 2020 plan was to return Nuñez to Triple-A to complete his development. But the Minor League season didn’t happen, and the Major League season was too short for a callup to materialize.
Nuñez believes he made strides offensively in alternate-site games.
“I needed to create a little more adjustability to have a chance at hitting these offspeed pitches,” Nuñez said. “I had a really good showing at the alternate site overall, the best I’ve ever felt in the batter’s box, the most confident.”
Defensively, it was all work and no Major League play.
Often before or after his teammates took batting practice, Nuñez stayed on the field with Mike Redmond, the bench coach and catching instructor, and Aaron Muñoz, a bullpen catcher with some coaching responsibilities. When warming up a pitcher, instead of squatting comfortably and playing catch, Nuñez practiced his stance, his blocking and his throwing footwork.
During games, the bullpen was a classroom, with closer Daniel Bard and righty setup man Tyler Kinley tutoring Nuñez on game situations.
“When you don’t take a pitch off in the bullpen -- when you’re not on the active roster and this pitch doesn’t really matter, but you make it matter -- then, when you’re playing in front of 50,000, or in August when you’re tired, you’re going to lock in a little more,” Nuñez said. “Don’t feel bad for yourself. Just try to get better.”
Major League time isn’t a given. Nuñez has two Minor League option years. Right-handed-hitting José Briceño, 28, who has played 48 games with the Angels and was in the Rockies’ Minor League system from 2010-14, is a non-roster invitee.
Nuñez has added incentive. Last season, he watched five players from his high school appear in the Majors -- Mets third baseman J.D. Davis (Nuñez’s offseason housemate), Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson, Blue Jays first baseman Rowdy Tellez, Tigers outfielder Derek Hill and White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal.
“I sensed it last year, that the time was going to come,” Nuñez said. “Just stay patient. Now, it’s just my time to prove it.”