Renato Nunez perennially has ranked as one of the Athletics’ top 30 prospects since the native Venezuelan first signed with the organization in 2010 for a $2.2 million bonus. After progressing steadily through the A’s farm system since his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2011, Nunez hit a bump in Triple-A this year as more advanced pitchers took advantage of his pull-heavy approach and lack of consistent contact.
After posting a .278/.332./480 line with Double-A Midland in 2015, Nunez managed only a .228/.278/.412 total with Triple-A Nashville this year. Most noticeably, his strikeout rate jumped from 15.9 percent in 2015 to 21.6 percent in 2016. Still, he made his big league debut in September, appearing in nine games after rosters expanded in September.
But the 22-year-old righthanded slugger has bounced back with a very impressive winter league season for the Tigres de Aragua of the Venezuelan League. As of Dec. 27, Nunez was batting .317/.400/.565, with his 11 home runs tying him for second in the league in this category.
While winter league stats can be misleading, Nunez’s first full winter league experience in his home country has been a positive experience.
“It gives him another opportunity to continue working on his consistency at the plate,” said Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s longtime farm director. “Winter ball is a great opportunity because you see a lot of breaking balls in that league. He can be a whole lot better, just because the more pitches you see the more opportunity you have to lay off tough pitches, and focus more on balls you want to hit rather than the tough pitches that nobody can hit.”
Nunez echoed that sentiment in a interview via phone, stating that he’s facing a lot of pitchers with major league and Triple-A experience. It’s given him the opportunity to better adjust his hitting approach on the fly rather than being able to plan ahead of time.
“Here, you don’t have video,” Nunez said. “You don’t know the pitchers. You’ve just got to go up there and hit. You’ve got to get a plan really quick.”
The importance of consistently having a plan when he goes to the plate is something that Nunez observed during his brief time with the big league team. It’s a lesson that really resonated with him.
“The guys have a plan and a good approach every single at-bat,” Nunez said about the big league hitters. “You can’t go to the plate and just hit . . . you’ve got to have a plan.”
Another improvement Nunez must make is to better use the whole field instead of trying to hit everything to the left side with his big pull-side power. It’s been an ongoing process for the young slugger since he first signed.
“What usually happens is that guys with big power or pull power, they know that’s going to be their bread and butter,” Lieppman said. “They tend to overplay that part of their game . . . When he learns to use the whole field, I think that’s going to be the one element that really helps him to be able to be that guy that can take the ball to right-center. It just expands his game where he isn’t limited to just pulling the ball to left.”
Nunez has spent most of his career as a third baseman, grading as a below-average but adequate defender there with a plus arm. He was Nashville’s regular at the hot corner through most of the 2016 season before shifting to left field after the arrival of Matt Chapman, Oakland’s No. 3 prospect, a plus defender with one of the best infield arms in the minor leagues. Where Nunez eventually winds up on the field is secondary to his hitting adjustments; his bat will get him to the big leagues. But developing the ability to play multiple positions coincides with Oakland’s philosophy of stressing versatility among its players.
Primarily playing first base and DH with the Tigres this winter, Nunez is fine with wherever the A’s put him in the field. He certainly sees the value of spending time at multiple positions.
“That helps me right now,” Nunez said, “because I’m looking for respect. Wherever the team needs me, whatever they want me to be playing, I’m going to take it . . . Playing first base and working in left field helps me to be more versatile. I think that’s good for me.”
After spending every spring, summer and fall away from home during his six years as a professional, Nunez is thrilled to be playing in his home country this winter. Prior to this year, he had spent only part of one winter playing in Venezuela.
“It makes me feel really good because my grandma, my mom, my cousins . . . everybody is able to watch me play,” Nunez said. “In the minor leagues it’s hard for my family to watch me play. So here, everybody goes to the field and watches me . . . It makes me feel real good.”