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By a single point, Dom Nuñez (and by extension all Rockies catching prospects) just avoided being shut out of the preseason 2019 Purple Row Prospects list. This keeps Nuñez’s streak of 12 straight PuRPs list appearances, dating back to the list immediately following the 2013 draft, where he was taken as a middle infielder in the 6th round. In between that first appearance and now, Nuñez has seen highs as a prospect (such as his ranking among the top 10 catching prospects in all of minor league baseball by MLB.com preceding the 2016 season) and lows (getting passed over for a 40 man roster slot by fellow Double-A catcher Chris Rabago in late 2017). Throughout, Nuñez has been seen as a backstop with plus defensive ability, plate discipline, and makeup — skills which have kept him in the prospect limelight for six professional seasons now.
The 23-year old lefty batting catcher has seen his offensive production stagnate at higher levels. Since his promotion to High A ball in 2016, Nunez has posted no higher than a .689 OPS and 94 wRC+ and hit no better than .241 in that span. Still, Nuñez has maintained double digit walk percentages and has been over a year younger than the average pitcher at every level, despite repeating at Doub;e-A in 2018. In his repeat campaign with Hartford, getting slightly more than half of the reps at catcher over Rabago, Nuñez hit .222/.320/.343 with 21 extra base hits over 377 plate appearances (87 wRC+). Those aren’t bad numbers considering his position and youth relative to level, but they aren’t an indication that he’ll be able to handle major league pitching either.
Here’s some video of Nuñez, courtesy of the Baseball Census, from the Arizona Fall League at the end of 2017:
Prior to the 2018 season, Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus wrote this about Nuñez:
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.
MLB.com has soured on Nuñez over the years, but they currently rank him 27th in the system:
With soft hands and more quickness than most catchers, Nunez has steadily improved into a solid receiver. He has arm strength to match and has gotten better with his transfer and accuracy. He impresses with his leadership skills as well, and there’s no doubt that he’ll be able to catch at the big league level.
Whether he’ll be able to hit is another question after he slid to .202/.335/.354 in Double-A last year, then went 4-for-44 in the Arizona Fall League. He has a nice left-handed stroke, the raw power to hit 15 homers per year and some patience, so there’s hope. While he doesn’t swing and miss excessively, pitchers goad him into a lot of weak contact to the opposite field.
As he enters 2019, Nuñez faces a make or break season. After all, he’s now been left unprotected and un-selected twice in the Rule 5 draft despite the plus defensive tools and positive intangible reports. After 2019, which may be spent at Triple-A Albuquerque, Nuñez will either be on the 40 man roster or he will be a minor league free agent.
So where does Nuñez stand right now? He strikes me right now as a younger version of Tony Wolters as a plus defender but light hitter, right down to the middle infield flexibility in a pinch. For me, the profile of a near-ready MLB back-up catcher with enough potential to still become a solid major leaguer was worth a 35+ FV, but Nuñez just missed my personal list given that the Rockies (and the other 29 MLB clubs who twice had a Rule 5 crack at him) don’t seem to think he’s ready to play that role just yet.