Feature Photo: Renato Nunez, 3B, Athletics (Photo by Chris Lockard)
The Oakland A’s traded away star third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays before the 2015 season, but the A’s shouldn’t suffer through any post-Ron Santo Chicago Cubs-like droughts at the hot corner. The A’s have more depth at third base than any other position in their minor league system. At the top of that prospect list are pair of sluggers – Matt Chapman and Renato Nunez.
Chapman, 22, and Nunez, 21, are also the top two right-handed power hitters in the A’s system, but they differ in their secondary skills. While Chapman is a year older than Nunez, Nunez is a level ahead of Chapman in terms of where they are projected to start 2016, with Chapman expected to be in Double-A Midland, and Nunez at Triple-A Nashville. However, it won’t be long before the A’s could be forced to make a decision between the two at third base. Which one would you take? Let’s take a closer look at the two prospects.
Renato Nunez, 3B, Midland (Double-A)
Ht/Wt: 6’1’’/ 200 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of 2/1/2016): 21 y, 10 m
The A’s signed Nunez as non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela on July 2, 2010, and he landed a $2.2 million signing bonus. Since debuting for the A’s in the Dominican Summer League in 2011, Nunez has moved steadily up the minor league chain, advancing one level per season and ending 2015 at Double-A Midland. He has hit at least 18 home runs in each of his three full professional seasons. In 2014, Nunez hit 29 homers for Stockton in the hitter-friendly High A California League. In 2015, Nunez was limited to 93 regular season games with Midland thanks to two stints on the DL with leg injuries, but he still hit 18 home runs and slugged .480, good for the third-best SLG in the Texas League.
Nunez is more than just a power hitter, however. He has the quickest wrists of any hitter in the A’s system, and the potential to hit for average in the big leagues. Nunez is a career .276 hitter, and he has improved his approach at the plate every year, increasing his contact rate each season and getting better at laying off a pitcher’s best pitches. From 2014-15, he reduced his K% by nearly 5% despite facing more advanced pitching. Nunez has power to all fields, but he pulled all but one of his regular season home runs in 2015. He had plenty of hits the other way, however, and it should be noted that Midland’s home ballpark is notoriously tough to hit it out of to right field due to the swirling winds at that park.
Nunez has a compact, 6’1’’, 200-pound frame with a strong lower half and a high waist. Last year’s two DL stints were the first time Nunez has missed any significant time due to injury. He made up for those lost games with seven games in the Texas League postseason and played a full Arizona Fall League season, hitting .296 over 71 AB. Durability shouldn’t be an issue for Nunez.
When not at the plate, Nunez can look stiff and unathletic, although appearances can be deceiving. He is a below-average runner in terms of speed, but he runs the bases well enough not to be a liability. It is with the glove that there are the most questions about Nunez’s future. He has been a below-average third baseman since he signed, although he has improved every year. Nunez has an average throwing arm and decent hands, but his range is limited by footwork that isn’t particularly smooth. He saw significant time at first base for the first time in his pro career last season, and that may be his ultimate home defensively, although he has improved enough at third that there is still a chance he can play there at the big league level.
Nunez is entering his second option season, and he is on track to make his major league debut sometime in 2016 or early 2017.
Matt Chapman, 3B, Stockton (High A)
Ht/Wt: 6’2’’, 205 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of 2/1/2016): 22 y, 10m
Chapman, the 25th overall pick in the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft, came to professional baseball from Cal State Fullerton with the reputation as the top defensive third baseman in the 2014 draft. He was considered underdeveloped as a power hitter, and he hit only six home runs in 54 games during his junior season at Fullerton. Chapman did have an epic pre-draft batting practice session at the O.co Coliseum, crushing long home runs to all directions of the park, and that session was more than enough to convince the A’s front office that they could turn the powerfully built Chapman into a home run hitter as a pro.
Chapman didn’t show a lot offensively during his pro debut season at Beloit in the Class A Midwest League in 2014, hitting just .237 with 5 home runs, but when an injury opened up a spot for Chapman on the Double-A Midland playoff roster, he rose to the occasion, winning the RockHounds’ playoff MVP award and impressing with the bat and the glove. He spent the 2015 season in High A with Stockton, although his season was shortened on both ends by injuries. He missed the start of the season recovering from a knee injury he sustained during the spring and lost the final month of the year, and the Arizona Fall League, due to a wrist injury. In between the injuries, Chapman showed impressive power at Stockton. He hit 23 homers in 304 ABs. Chapman batted only .250, but he walked 39 times in 80 games for a .341 OBP.
In college, Chapman sacrificed power for an opposite-field approach that allowed him to hit for higher average. The A’s have worked with Chapman to be more pull-conscious so he takes better advantage of his natural power. That mindset cut into his ability to hit for average last season, but as he matures, he could blend the two approaches to hit for higher average, although he isn’t likely to contend for batting titles. Despite focusing on the pull-side, Chapman still hit nine of his home runs to right/right-center, and he has the power to go out of any park.
Defensively, Chapman has the strongest infield arm in the A’s system, which should not be a surprise – he was clocked at 96 MPH off the mound with Team USA in 2013. Chapman has smooth actions around the bag and the athleticism to charge in on balls and range to his glove side. He is still learning when to hold his throws on plays he has little chance of making, but Chapman will be able to stick at third, and he should be an asset at the position in the big leagues.
Durability is a question with Chapman at the moment, as he has yet to play more than 80 games in a season. He has had a variety of fluky injuries since turning pro – a back injury sustained chasing a foul pop onto a tarp, a knee injury suffered in a training drill and a wrist injury incurred on a play at second base – that have cut into his development. He needs a full season in 2016 to show what he is capable of over the course of a 140-game schedule.
At this stage there is no right or wrong answer, which is part of the fun of this exercise. So, who ya got? The raw hitting ability but limited defense of Nunez, or the strong-armed defense and maturing bat of Chapman?