NEW YORK — Eduardo Nunez was the heir to Derek Jeter’s throne at shortstop at one point in his career, a prospect the Yankees considered so valuable they would not include him a proposed deal for All-Star lefthander Cliff Lee in 2010.
Nunez proved to be only a competent backup in New York, a contact hitter with occasional power who could play multiple positions on defense. His actual value was revealed in 2014 when the Yankees traded him to the Minnesota Twins for a minor league pitcher of little consequence.
The heir to the throne wasn’t fit to stay in the castle.
“You get traded for the first time and you think, ‘What is going on here?’ It changes everything,” Nunez said.
After an uneven first two seasons with the Twins, Nunez sought the advice of former Yankees teammate Robinson Cano, by then a six-time All-Star. Cano told Nunez to change how he prepared for the season, to work harder in the winter and turn his athletic ability into more consistent production at the plate.
Cano invited Nunez to join him at his facility in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic for workouts. His father, former major league pitcher Jose Cano, ran the operation.
“I had always worked out in my hometown and I thought I was doing what I needed to do,” Nunez said. “But Cano, he’s such a great player. I knew I had to listen to him. There were a lot of benefits being around him and his dad.”
Nunez joined Edwin Encarnacion, Jean Segura, and occasionally other big leaguers in workouts with Cano. It required two hours of commuting time a day, a small sacrifice given the opportunity.
For Nunez, the gain was less with the physical work and more with learning more about hitting in conversations with Cano and the other players. His approach — swing at whatever he felt he could hit — was refined.
“I trained with a specific purpose,” Nunez said. “I had never done that before. I learned a better way at the plate. Talking to Robbie, to Edwin, they’ve had so much success. I wanted to learn from them. You need to have a plan when you go up there.”
In the two seasons since then, Nunez has hit .302 with a .781 OPS, becoming the offensive player the Yankees believed he could be. There has been power (24 home runs), speed (61 stolen bases), and improved plate discipline.
But it hasn’t cut down on the trades. The Twins flipped Nunez to the San Francisco Giants at the 2016 deadline, selling when his value was at a peak. Nunez helped the Giants make the playoffs and this season was sent to the Red Sox on July 26, again when his value was high.
Now the Red Sox start a three-game series against the Yankees Friday night with Nunez as one of their lineup cornerstones. He is 21 of 50 (.420) in 11 games since joining the Sox, with 6 doubles, 4 home runs, 12 RBIs, and 3 stolen bases.
“What more could you ask for? He’s been great,” Mookie Betts said. “From the first game, he’s just been great.”
With Nunez in the lineup, the Sox are 9-2. The “big bat” fans were clamoring for in a trade proved to be a utility infielder finally realizing his potential at age 30.
“He’s performed as well as anyone could have,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “His energy and his contributions have been felt quickly.”
Cano saw it coming. The Sox were in Seattle the day they traded two minor league pitchers for Nunez. The Mariners second baseman thought it was a perfect fit.
“He knows that division and he knows about playing at Fenway Park,” Cano said. “They’ll love him.”
With two trades in the span of a year, Nunez has become accustomed to fitting in quickly with a new team. His easygoing personality helps.
“Going from a last-place team to a first-place team is great,” Nunez said. “You want to win a World Series, get that ring. That is every player’s dream. What a great opportunity.
“Last year was hard. I got traded and they said, ‘You leave tomorrow morning.’ That was tough. This time it was much easier. I was prepared for it. I like it with the Red Sox.”
Nunez has started games at second base, shortstop, and third base for the Sox, along with two starts as the designated hitter. He is, at best, an adequate defender. But it’s better to be adequate at several positions instead of one.
“One of the more welcoming things about Eduardo is when he first came in, [he said,] ‘I’ll play anywhere,’ ” Farrell said. “His openness to the defensive versatility and his attitude has been great for our flexibility on defense.”
Nunez will be a free agent after the season and his best avenue to a long-term contract could be that versatility.
Like Ben Zobrist of the Cubs, Josh Harrison of the Pirates, Red Sox teammate Brock Holt, and others, Nunez has embraced the idea of getting more playing time by showing a willingness to move around the diamond.
“I’ll play center field if they ask,” he said. “There’s a fly ball, go catch it. I can do that.”
In the post-steroid era of baseball, giving players extra days of rest is a performance enhancer. Players like Nunez have become increasingly important, particularly if a team wants to carry an extra relief pitcher.
Nunez could find an active market for his services, even more so if he helps deliver the Sox to the playoffs.
“This has been fun for me, playing for different teams,” Nunez said. “This is why baseball is fun. You can start your career with one team and continue with another.
“We play the Yankees now and I’ll see the games from the Red Sox side. That will be great. This weekend will be fun.”