Sep 21, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Eduardo Nunez (26) hits a two run home run to left during the fourth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Why Eduardo Nunez Was So Important to the New York Yankees

People still talk about the Cliff Lee trade that wasn’t today. The Mariners were going to send the left-handed ace to the Yankees in 2010 if the team would just include Eduardo Nunez in the deal along with Jesus Montero and Zach McAllister. As you’ve likely heard before, New York balked at this request, Lee went to the Rangers (and then the Phillies) and the rest is history.

Shortstops have always been, and will always be, in high demand amongst major league teams. It is (depending on your views) the most important or second most important defensive position on the field. But if defense were all that mattered, no one would have an issue trotting Brendan Ryan or Pete Kozma out every day. Nunez has always been maddeningly inconsistent both in the field and at the plate, but he had potential that multiple teams, including the Yankees, were drawn to.

The way the story goes, Brian Cashman and company decided not to pull the trigger on the proposed Lee trade because they couldn’t afford to send their two top position prospects for a pitcher that they wanted, but didn’t need.  In other words, Montero and Nunez were too valuable to use on one asset that wasn’t an absolute necessity. Their pitching that year was good (not great), but boasted a legitimate ace in CC Sabathia, a trusted No. 2 starter in Andy Pettitte, an All-Star in Phil Hughes (yes that Phil Hughes) and two capable if unpredictable arms in A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez. They were a team that finished with 95 wins and the second best record in the American League, and while we can argue over the merits of holding onto Montero and Nunez, the Mariners may have been playing New York to get Justin Smoak from the Rangers all along. We just don’t know.

So what does this have to do with 2013? Nunez is still a Yankee, but you won’t hear his name in many trade rumors this offseason. They held onto Nunez because he had the capability to become a major league shortstop, maybe never for the Yankees, but good enough to fetch something from another team in need. So they gave him chances.

He played in 112 games in 2011, putting up a respectable OPS+ of 87, but proving too much of a liability on defense.  In 2012 he was better at the plate – albeit in a more limited role – posting an OPS+ of 95 in 38 games. He also had maybe the best at-bat of an otherwise miserable ALCS showing, taking Justin Verlander deep. With Derek Jeter on the mend, 2013 was supposed to be the year Nunez established himself.

You can blame it on injuries or anything else you’d like, but Nunez didn’t deliver this season. As a result, the Yankees now not only need to find a capable shortstop as Jeter insurance (Stephen Drew please), they won’t be able to shop Nunez for help elsewhere on the diamond. I mention this specifically because the Cardinals need a shortstop and they’re reportedly willing to part with Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller to get one. No one could have predicted that two starters of that caliber would be available this offseason, but if you ever found yourself asking why Nunez got chance after chance to prove himself, I think that’s your answer.

It’s 2013 and the Yankees truly need a pitcher this time around. Even given the way he’s developed, it’s clear now why Nunez was so important to this franchise. I’m not saying that swapping Nunez for Miller would have be a slam-dunk, but now that deal isn’t even a possibility.

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