22. Dom Nuñez (94 points, 10 ballots)
In 2020, the Rockies rolled with a catching unit of Tony Wolters, Elias Díaz, and Drew Butera. Combined, the three players hit .217/.266/.285 in 225 PAs, which led to a truly terrible, 29th in MLB 35 wRC+ and -1.2 fWAR (dead last). Notably absent from that Cobra Cabal of Catchers was Dom Nuñez, who has now been on 14 of the last 15 PuRPs lists (and was #31 in the other one) since 2013 because he’s been one of Colorado’s top two catching prospects basically since 2013 along with Tom Murphy.
That’s a title the 26-year-old (as of yesterday) still holds, but it’s not a credit to Nuñez 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. Rockies fans hope that Competitive Balance Round A pick Drew Romo will scratch that itch.
Back to Nuñez though: the lefty-hitting, righty-throwing backstop has continually gotten passed over by the Rockies. First, they exposed him twice to the Rule 5 draft (where he wasn’t selected) while protecting zero-time PuRP catcher Chris Rabago (who is back in the organization after getting claimed on waivers and traded back to the Rockies in 2019) —though he was added during the 2019 season. Secondly, somehow Nuñez didn’t get a look even with the terrible trio stinking up the joint at the catcher position in 2020.
That’s despite Nuñez having his best year since his Low-A days (when he was getting some top 100 prospect heat in 2015) in 2019 in his first taste of Triple-A. Nuñez 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. Nuñez 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, Nuñez 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.
Faced with the prospect of losing Nuñez to minor league free agency, and with their typical set of poor performing catchers at the big league level, the Rockies finally added Nuñez to the 40-man roster in August 2019 and called him up to The Show. Nuñez promptly homered in his first game but after that high he didn’t show very well. In 43 plate appearances with the Rockies (10 starts), Nuñez hit just .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.
That’s not great, of course, but Nuñez was a 24-year-old defense-first catcher getting his first taste of major league pitching. I won’t say I’m surprised he didn’t get any run in 2020, but I am disappointed.
Nuñez 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 Nuñez from 2018 in Double-A courtesy of 2080 Baseball:
The call-up of Nuñez in 2019 got Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus to get introspective about the types of prospects he ranks. While the article isn’t strictly “about” Nuñez, 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 Nuñez 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.
After a year spent at the alternate site, watching the MLB catching corps flail, Nuñez currently is a clear number two on the organizational catching chart behind Díaz (they’re the only two 40-man roster catchers), as both Wolters and Butera are currently out of the system. I say currently because, well, this is the Rockies we’re talking about.
Realistically, Nuñez is a Wolters-type prospect: 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). Nuñez has more power and might be a better hitter than Wolters but is probably a bit behind him defensively. Overall, though, the back-up catcher vibes are there.
For me, the profile of a MLB back-up catcher who enters 2021 as one of two catchers on the 40-man roster was worth a 35+ FV, but Nuñez was #31 on my personal list due not only to his 2019 MLB struggles but also how the Rockies kept passing over him for mediocrities like Butera, Wolters, and Díaz in 2020. I fear a similar fate may be in store for 2021.