The Tigers’ offseason-long search for help at first base turned them towards a power source from Baltimore. They’ve signed former Orioles first baseman Renato Núñez to a Minor League contract that includes an invite to big league camp for Spring Training.
Núñez was one of the hottest hitters in baseball for a stretch last summer while helping power the O’s back from the bottom of the American League East standings. The Venezuelan-born slugger cooled off down the stretch, lost playing time and was designated for assignment after the season rather than going through arbitration. He’ll get a chance to prove himself again and try to make a Tigers roster that has a clear opening at first base.
The 26-year-old Núñez hit 43 home runs in 203 games over the past two seasons, including 12 last year. His 2020 campaign included tears of five homers in seven games to begin August, then five more homers in a nine-game span from late August into September. With the tears came the slumps, including a .203 average with 32 strikeouts in 79 at-bats from late August into September.
For the season, Núñez set career bests with a .492 slugging percentage, an .816 OPS and an 121 OPS+. Nearly half of his 50 hits went for doubles or homers. He also posted a career-high 29.6 percent strikeout rate, while becoming a launch-angle hitter with an average angle of 21.1 degrees, but his hard-hit rate dropped from 40.9 percent in 2019 to 36.4 percent in '20.
Though Núñez’s power profile fit Camden Yards, he actually was a better hitter on the road in 2020, with a higher slugging percentage and OPS. Eight of his 12 home runs last year would have been homers in Comerica Park, according to Statcast. The right-handed hitter also hit righties (.859 OPS) better than lefties (.655), with all but one of his homers coming.
Núñez will be a project for the Tigers and new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, who was his hitting coach in Baltimore in 2018. Núñez hit .275 with seven homers, 20 RBIs and a 114 OPS+ that season.
The signing of Núñez would seemingly rule out a Tigers reunion with C.J. Cron, who was Detroit’s starting first baseman and cleanup hitter last year before suffering a season-ending left knee injury in early August. Jeimer Candelario moved from third base to first and enjoyed a breakout season, but the Tigers are keeping their options open on which infield corner he’ll handle in 2021. Miguel Cabrera has also expressed an interest in playing first base again, but he would most likely be an occasional option there at best.