DENVER -- When Dom Nunez was given a non-roster invitation to Major League spring training back in February, it was a surprise to the 21-year-old catcher who had yet to play above Low-A, and probably a surprise to most everyone following the Rockies, even those who were well aware of Nunez's ceiling. But talk to Nunez a bit, and suddenly it becomes very clear why the Rockies wanted to get a first look this spring.
"I was by far the youngest guy there, especially for a catcher, so I was just trying to learn from the veterans," Nunez says, looking back on how eye-opening it was to be in big league camp. "The number one thing I did was just watch how they go about their business, I’ve played with older guys my whole life, so I know how it is, how to treat those guys, and how to give them respect."
But that deference doesn't just pay dividends over time through experiential learning; it also gave Nunez visible career role models to which he now aspires. Unsurprisingly, Nick Hundley left a positive impression on the young catcher—Nunez calls him "the best guy I’ve seen in a clubhouse in how he goes about his business and treats his teammates"—but it was Tony Wolters who Nunez most remembers. Then again, there's a history there; when Nunez was a freshman in high school in northern California, he remembers playing against Wolters—then a senior in southern California—in tournaments and on travel teams.
"We were both middle infielders at the time, actually," Nunez says, laughing. "It was fun catching up with him [during spring training] and seeing him behind the plate now, because he’s legit."
'Legit' isn't the only word Nunez uses to describe Wolters; as we've heard time and again, the Rockies' backup catcher's defense sets him apart from so many, and Nunez seems to be evangelizing that style of play to teammates at his current outpost with the High-A Modesto Nuts.
"We watch him play [on TV in the Nuts' clubhouse], and these guys are like, 'who is this guy?' And I’m like, 'watch him, he’s nasty, he’s unreal behind the plate,'" Nunez says, shaking his head. "I think he threw 50% of runners out in Double-A? That’s unreal throwing that percentage."
Nunez is right about that; in 2014 at Double-A Akron in the Indians' organization, Wolters threw out 47% of base runners—25 of the 53 who attempted to steal—in 66 games behind the plate. But lest you think the admiration extends only one way between these catchers, you don't know much about Wolters' fierce loyalty towards and desire to help his teammates.
"He's a great catcher, he can swing it, he has all the tools," Wolters says when asked about Nunez in the Rockies' clubhouse in Denver. "He's a good receiver, very relaxed, he has a good mentality back there and I was really impressed with him."
The two young men share the bond of catching professionally, even though—as Nunez mentions—each came to it only after a career in middle infield. Wolters spent the first several years of his pro career primarily playing second base before being converted to catcher two years ago, while Nunez make his rookie league debut at second before the Rockies thought better of it and moved him behind the plate, too.
The athleticism and technical ability required to move from the middle infield to catcher should speak volumes about each man; after all, that versatility and flexibility is part of what surprisingly landed Wolters a job with the big league club out of spring training. That wasn't lost on Nunez, ever observant of his elders in the hopes of picking up a nugget of knowledge for his own future.
"Initially, I didn’t think he was the guy that was going to win the job," Nunez admits of Wolters' unlikely path to the major leagues. "I thought they just brought him in, and maybe in a couple years, he’s in the discussion. But that just shows that he went into our clubhouse and treated it like this was his job to take."
"He went in and respected every single guy in that clubhouse, and I know all the catchers loved him," Nunez adds. "He’s a great guy, and he won the job. He earned it for sure."
With Wolters now getting his first taste of the big leagues, the next step—albeit several years down the road—may be a reunion between the two catchers. Sure, Nunez has a few minor league levels to conquer first, Wolters must prove he can hit enough to warrant use as a backup catcher, and other promising prospects like Tom Murphy will stay in the discussion, too. But Wolters already sees the path forward.
"He has a lot of talent, and he’s going to be a big leaguer for sure. It’s just a matter of time," Wolters offers about Nunez's future. "He just wants to keep learning, keep getting better. I can’t wait to see him up here."
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Additional reporting for this story done on location in Modesto, Calif.