24. Dom Nunez (147 points, 16 ballots)
It was beginning to look like a MLB role with the Rockies would never happen for Dom Nunez. The lefty hitting, righty throwing catcher, who turns 25 tomorrow, has appeared on 13 out of the last 14 PuRPs lists (and was #31 in the other one) because he’s been one of Colorado’s top two catching prospects basically since 2013 along with Tom Murphy. That’s a title Nunez still holds, but it’s not a credit to him so much as it is a demerit to the way Colorado has handled the catcher position at the minor league level for basically the entire 2010s. Colorado hasn’t produced a starting catcher out of their farm system since Wilin Rosario, who debuted in 2011. For an org that professes draft and develop like the Rockies, that’s a big miss.
Back to Nunez though: the reason it appeared his time had passed him by was that the Rockies had twice left him exposed to the Rule 5 draft (where he wasn’t selected) while protecting zero-time PuRP catcher Chris Rabago and favoring marginal veterans like Drew Butera when opportunities did arise at the major league level. Entering 2019, the Rockies needed to either add Nunez to the 40 man roster by the end of the year or risk losing him to minor league free agency.
Fortunately for both parties, Nunez had his best offensive season since tearing up Low A in 2015 (and putting him in top 100 prospect conversations), making the decision to call him up to the Show in August an easy one. Assigned to AAA for the first time in 2019, Nunez hit .244/.362/.559 with 32 extra-base hits (17 HR) in 257 plate appearances for Albuquerque, good for a 116 wRC+ in an offense-friendly Pacific Coast League. Nunez hit better at home (1.069 OPS) than the road (.805 OPS) and was significantly better against right-handed pitching (1.053 OPS vs. .585 against lefties). Regardless, Nunez was pairing his trademark selectivity at the plate (13.6% BB) with some strikeouts (26.8% K) and finally some power, which had been lacking the last three years.
After his big league call-up, Nunez promptly homered in his first game but after that high he didn’t show well. In 43 plate appearances with the Rockies (10 starts), Nunez hit .179/.233/.410 with two homers and three doubles against 17 strikeouts (39.5% K), a 44 wRC+ and a performance worth -0.2 rWAR.
Nunez isn’t on any top prospects lists anymore (besides this one), but there are a couple recent reports on him worth sharing below. Here’s some video on Nunez from 2018 in AA courtesy of 2080 Baseball:
The call-up of Nunez got Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus to get introspective about the types of prospects he ranks. While the article isn’t strictly “about” Nunez, there is some scouting detail there:
Conservatively, I saw Nuñez catch 30 times or so in Hartford and never saw the borderline Top 101 prospect he was in the low minors. He looked fine behind the plate, but he struggled to hit anything he couldn’t pull hard, and the profile didn’t really pop.
I knew what Nuñez was—a plus glove behind the plate with enough pull side power to bop a few dingers. It’s the dictionary definition of a backup catcher, assuming he could hit enough to actually get the power into games.
It’s a 4/3, fringe backup or third catcher. It’s the kind of profile that is tricky to write, because how confident are you that the glove is really that good? You are also seeing only a fraction of what the org sees when it comes to the soft skills, both defensively and in terms of pitcher handling, and that matters even more for the fringe major league backstops. What we could “see” suggested he was one of the best receivers in the Eastern League that year, and his FRAA numbers have been similarly strong in his upper minors stints since.
FanGraphs had a one line summary on Nunez from May 2019: “Nuñez is crushing Triple-A. He can catch, he walks, and the rest of his tools are 40s.” That’s a reasonable summary of Nuñez—throughout his run as a prospect, Nuñez has been seen as a backstop with plus defensive ability, plate discipline, and makeup. It just has been a while since we’d seen him mash the way he did in 2019.
So where does Nuñez stand right now? His obvious comp is Tony Wolters as a plus defender but light hitter, right down to the middle infield flexibility in a pinch (his first professional season was as a middle infielder). For me, the profile of a MLB back-up catcher who enters 2020 as one of two catchers on the 40-man roster was worth a 35+ FV, but Nuñez missed my personal list given his poor 2020 MLB performance and the competition Colorado has brought in on minor league deals to supplant him as back-up catcher this winter like the ever-present Butera and Elias Diaz.