When Eduardo Nunez sharpens his swing in the off season, he does it in select company.That’s why you can bet that Nunez, the Giants’ projected starting third baseman, will have a productive season. Otherwise, his hitting partners might not welcome him back.
Nunez’s group, which convenes three times a week in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo beginning in January, is laden with talent. Start with Angels slugger Albert Pujols, a three-time Most Valuable Player and probable Hall of Famer. There’s also Seattle’s Robinson Cano, who amassed 39 home runs and 103 RBIs last year, and Cleveland’s Edwin Encarnacion, who averaged 39 homers and 110 RBIs in the previous five seasons.
Others in the club are Seattle’s Jean Segura, who batted .319 and led the National League with 203 hits for Arizona last year, and Miami’s Marcell Ozuna, who hit 23 homers in two of the previous three seasons. The contingent is supervised by hitting instructor Luis Mercedes, whose Major League career ended with an 18-game stint as a Giants outfielder in 1993.
Each player is an All-Star. Each has something to offer.
“We never stop learning. We work on everything,” Nunez said Friday after the Giants’ first full-squad workout. “You don’t want to be happy where you are. You try to get better. You learn from people. You learn from Cano. Cano learns from Pujols. Encarnacion learns from Cano. I learn from Encarnacion. We share ideas.”
They also prepare. Asked if he already had refined his swing enough to appear in a regular-season game, Nunez said, “Yes. Sure.”
Can you play nine innings? “Yes.”
Acquired by the Giants from Minnesota shortly before last year’s non-waiver Trade Deadline, Nunez will have a full season to share his hitting secrets with teammates. He also may feel compelled to draw upon his knowledge quite frequently for himself. Giants manager Bruce Bochy might occasionally employ him at the top of the order or in the No. 2 slot.
“I definitely see that,” Bochy said.
Or Bochy might use the right-handed-batting Nunez lower in the order to dissolve a potential glut of left-handed hitters.
Nunez thrived last year, making the American League All-Star squad before finishing with a .288 batting average, 16 homers and 67 RBIs. However, his season essentially ended with a week to go in the regular season on Sept. 25, when he strained his right hamstring. Nunez was on the Giants’ roster for the Division Series against the Cubs, but was limited to three pinch-hitting appearances. He said he needed five more weeks of treatment and exercise before he could pronounce himself fully healthy.
Nunez considered the season incomplete, due to the injury.
“To win, that was one of the reasons I’m here,” he said. “I was hurt at the wrong time. That was very hard for me.”
By contrast, playing third base should be easier for Nunez, who joined the Giants three days before the position’s previous occupant, Matt Duffy, was traded to Tampa Bay. Capable of playing all three outfield positions and each infield spot except first base, Nunez was accustomed to rotating around the diamond with Minnesota before Bochy entrenched him at third.
“In the beginning I was a little rushed, making plays from a different angle,” Nunez said. “But by the end I was more comfortable.”
By Chris Haft