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Rockies prospect Dom Nuñez maintains a high-ceiling despite losing shine

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Nuñez ranks No. 21 in the pre-season 2018 PuRPs list

21. Dom Nuñez (281 points, 27 ballots)

Dom Nuñez has had a roller coaster of a minor league career to date. The almost 23-year-old lefty hitting backstop (who began his professional career as a middle infielder) was red-hot over the second half of the 2015 season, giving him some consideration as a top-10 catching prospect in the minors. Then in 2016 (in High A at age 21, mind you) his bat took a major step back, posting a 85 wRC+. Nonetheless, the Rockies advanced Nuñez up the ladder to Double-A for 2017.

With Hartford, Nuñez’s batting line represented a continuation of the trend that had shown up repeatedly through his professional career: a low batting average but high walks production with occasional pop. For the Yard Goats in 2017 Nuñez hit .202/.335/.354 with 22 extra base hits in 364 plate appearances, which in the Eastern League represented a 94 wRC+. That slightly below league average production isn’t bad for a catching prospect who was 2.2 years younger than the average player in the Eastern League, but they don’t scream “break-out prospect” either. Nuñez was assigned to the Arizona Fall League by the Rockies but didn’t distinguish himself, mustering only four hits in 44 at-bats.

Nuñez is lauded by prospect watchers for his leadership, make-up, and defensive feel behind the plate. He threw out 34% of runners in 2017 and cut his passed balls down from 19 to five, though some credit and blame for that belongs to the pitchers who are throwing to him.

Let’s look at some video of Nuñez, courtesy of the Baseball Census, from the Arizona Fall League:

Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus recently ranked Nuñez among their top 20 Rockies prospects:

My notes on [Nunez] over a dozen looks or so do not speak well of his bat, but you could probably glean that from just looking at his triple slash. Sometimes the stats are a pretty good explanation on their own. He has a good idea of the strike zone, he can yank a fastball over the fence every once in awhile—and played in a home park that rewarded that approach—but the swing is grooved, despite being on the short side, and I don’t know if there is enough bat speed to handle better velo. It’s just not an exciting offensive profile.

...

On the defensive front, Nunez has everything you’d want in a backstop, well-above-average receiving and more than enough arm to control the running game. (FWIW, our minor league defensive numbers thought he was one of the best backstops in Double-A.) ... I wouldn’t be shocked if Nunez only sees a cup of coffee as a third catcher or if he has a 15-year career. That’s a wider OFP/Likely range than we should be comfortable with at BP, so let’s split the difference and say he’s a good backup.

In addition, Nunez ranks 15th on MLB.com’s Rockies list:

Nunez has quicker feet than most catchers and soft hands, and he could develop into a solid receiver ... He has solid arm strength and has improved his transfer and accuracy, raising his caught-stealing percentage from 21 percent in 2015 to 43 percent a year ago. Add his leadership skills to the package, and he already has become the best defensive catcher in the system.

With a smooth left-handed swing that one club official compared to Carlos Gonzalez’s, Nunez focuses on using the center of the field. He has reasonable control of the strike zone for a youngster along with 15-homer upside, but he has struggled at the plate since leaving low Class A. He runs better than a typical catcher and will steal a base if the defense forgets about him.

In a nutshell, Nuñez is a potential big-league signal caller who was the primary catcher in Double-A at age 22. He doesn’t have an exciting offensive profile, though the plate discipline provides some hope. More important is that he’s a potential plus defensive catcher with a smooth swing that could become a solid big league starter.

With that kind of potential in a system mostly bereft of catching prospects, it was surprising to me when Nuñez was left unprotected for last month’s Rule 5 Draft by the Rockies in favor of a relatively anonymous (and farther away) catching prospect in Chris Rabago. The fact that Nuñez wasn’t taken by another team in that draft is a sign that other teams think he’s far away too.

The silver lining for Rockies fans is that Nuñez will now get another year of development time before the Rockies have to make the decision to start his 40 man roster clock. Of course, this decision also means the Rockies aren’t confident Nuñez’s 40 man roster status will matter much. I’m still a believer in Nuñez as a prospect, tagging him with a 40+ FV as a potential MLB catcher with the ability to be a decent starter and ranked him 14th on my ballot.