When the New York Yankees take the field for their three-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Friday night, there will be a familiar face manning third base for the Red Sox. Eduardo Nunez was not only a top Yankees prospect who failed to pan out for them. He was also the sticking point in the negotiation of a trade that could very well have led to the Yankees winning back-to-back World Series and having an ace starting pitcher who, after the failed trade, they subsequently were unable to sign as a free agent: Cliff Lee.
To complicate matters further for the Yankees, since his trade from the San Francisco Giants to the Red Sox, Nunez has been on a tear with a .420/.442/.780 slash, six doubles and four homers in 11 games. He’s stolen three bases in three tries and accrued a 0.8 bWAR in that small number of games.
At 30, Nunez is not a “star,” but as a free agent at season’s end, he will get a good multiyear contract for a midlevel player. It’s doubtful the Yankees spend a great deal of time lamenting Nunez evolving into an established major leaguer, an All-Star with the Minnesota Twins and now a member of the Red Sox. He was a well-regarded prospect who didn’t work out for them. What is regrettable from the Yankees’ perspective is that they viewed Nunez so highly that the request on the part of the Seattle Mariners for him to be included in a trade for Lee was rejected, and Lee was traded to the Texas Rangers.
This is not simply a player in a trade that failed to work out. It’s a trade that had a domino effect and exemplifies how a mistaken evaluation and conscious decision not to take the growing pains that come with most young players can damage an organization. Nunez was a shortstop in the minors. With the Yankees farm system largely decimated through trades, poor drafting and development — they were 22nd in Baseball America’s preseason rankings that year — they felt they were in no position to surrender those they viewed as top-tier, especially when the day to replace Derek Jeter was approaching with Nunez the heir apparent.
Therefore, they refused to part with Nunez as an add-on that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik requested. It was a bad decision.
This is not to denigrate the value of prospects, but such terms as “cost control” and “swing path” and “exit velocity” combined with outside rankings and fans expressing themselves on blogs and social media about the value of these players have made it more difficult for executives to do their jobs. They have another layer to get through to convince ownership that their strategy of trading these relative unknowns is the right one.
In normal circumstances, the Yankees trying to trade for a player and failing has been a background issue to be rectified when said player becomes a free agent and the Yankees can overwhelm him with riches and their competitors with their financial muscle. Had the Yankees not had the misfortune of playing the team to which Lee was traded — the Rangers — in the AL Championship Series that season, who knows whether Lee would have accepted the Yankees free agent contract rather than return to the Philadelphia Phillies?
While it’s true that Lee and his wife enjoyed their brief time in Philadelphia in 2009, who can say how much of an impact the Yankees fans spitting on and cursing at her when the Rangers were playing at Yankee Stadium had on him choosing the Phillies and later saying that his second choice was to re-sign with Texas?
While in the immediate aftermath, the Lees dismissed any lingering anger at the Yankees and their fans for the incident, how much of that was done to keep the Yankees in the mix as a potential landing spot and to raise their price? It always helps to have the Yankees as a pursuer even if there’s no interest in signing with them. Once he signed with the Phillies, there were whispers that, yeah, Lee and especially his wife were angry enough at the treatment that the Yankees were a no-go.
Nunez remained a Yankee, spent parts of four seasons with the big-league club, produced a pedestrian slash of .267/.313/.379 with 10 home runs in 827 plate appearances, and could not handle shortstop with defensive metrics that were far worse than the then-39-year-old Jeter, whose range at that point was comparable to a statue.
At the start of the 2014 season, facing a roster crunch and with Nunez having lost his spot to Dean Anna and then-unknown Yangervis Solarte, the player who prevented the Yankees from getting Lee was traded to the Twins for a minor league pitcher Miguel Sulbaran who, earlier this season, was placed on the restricted list at Double-A Trenton.
All of this — the failure of Nunez as a Yankee; the loss in the ALCS; being spurned by Lee as a free agent — could have been avoided had they made that trade.
This is not to overtly blame the Yankees for failing to pull the trigger on Lee if it meant including a prospect they liked a great deal and expected to be a star for them, but it does expose the fickle nature of prospects. In this specific situation, it’s the Yankees who are evaluating them and the year-in/year-out demand is not predicated toward development but winning. While Nunez showed he could hit — the ball exploded off his bat — he did not have a defensive position and could not play shortstop effectively enough to warrant the win-first Yankees suffering through his learning curve. And if he had to replace Jeter, that pressure can bury even the most mentally tough, physically gifted players.
The Yankees also cling to perceptions as to what kind of offensive production they’re expecting from players who are manning various defensive positions. Corner outfielders and corner infielders are expected to hit the ball out of the park. Nunez, at the time, was perhaps a 10-home run man, eliminating him from being their third baseman of the future or moving to left field.
Had Lee been a Yankee, the treatment at Yankee Stadium does not happen. Once he was in a Yankees uniform, they would not have allowed him to leave as a free agent.
Regarding the chance for a second straight World Series, there is no conceivable way to say with certainty the Yankees would have won the title that was eventually won by the San Francisco Giants over the Rangers. But without Lee, the Rangers might not even have been in the ALCS against the Yankees. If the Yankees had Lee to combine with a still-in-his-prime CC Sabathia at the top of their rotation, they had a solid chance to win the title again.
When weighing the future vs. the present, the long-term goals vs. the short-term goals, which is more important? No matter how much the Yankees liked him, was it worth it to surrender Nunez in the package for Lee to try and win another World Series and place the club into contention for perhaps two more World Series for the duration of Lee’s likely contract extension? In short, for a team like the Yankees, was Nunez so good that they could not replace him by spending money on someone else?
Now they must look at him with the Red Sox while he’s essentially hitting the way they thought he would hit and doing so with their most hated rivals simultaneous to the hovering ghosts of a failure to defend their last championship largely because Lee was pitching for the team that ended their reign.
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