The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Malcolm Nuñez in the José Quintana trade. Long-term, where does he fit with the organization?
Monday night saw the Pittsburgh Pirates trade José Quintana to the St. Louis Cardinals, who were a surprising landing spot for the left-handed starter. They also included right-handed reliever Chris Stratton. In exchange for the two now-former Pirates, the Bucs received Johan Oviedo and Malcolm Nuñez, whom we will focus on here.
Nunñez was ranked as a top 10 prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals system by MLB Pipeline and a top 20 prospect in the organization per FanGraphs. Nuñez signed with the Cards at the 2018 July international signing deadline, and since then, he has steadily risen through the Cards’ minor leagues.
Nuñez reached Double-A at the age of 20 last season but struggled. He returned to that level of the minors this year and is putting up some quality numbers. Nunez is currently hitting .255/.360/.463 with a 13.7% walk rate and 20.3% strikeout rate. His overall production is summed up in his .366 wOBA and 110 wRC+.
Two things have slowed Nuñez down. A poor April and May have bogged down his overall numbers. Since the outset of June, Nuñez has a .949 OPS, .408 wOBA, and 136 wRC+. His ISO since June sits at .269 and has 14 dingers in less than 200 plate appearances. The second thing is that Nuñez has a .278 batting average on balls in play this season. Since making his professional debut in 2018, Nunez’s BAbip leading up to 2022 was .337. Since the start of his summer hot streak, Nuñez has a .325 BAbip, a much closer mark to his career average.
Nuñez’s offensive ceiling is high. He receives 55 grades for each of his hit, game power, and raw power tools from FanGraphs. But his defense leaves a lot to be desired. He’s a terrible defender at third base and has mostly played first base this season. Nunez does have a strong arm, but his lack of speed makes anywhere but first base a non-viable option.
Nuñez has good plate discipline, consistently posting a walk rate above 10% and strikeout rate around 20%. With good power and a decent hit, too, I could see Nunez being a similar hitter to what Josh Bell was for the Pirates. From 2016 through 2019, Bell hit .265/.354/.477 with a .350 wOBA, and 118 wRC+. Bell averaged about 25 homers every season, with above-average walk and strikeout rates.
But now, with the designated hitter in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates can split Nuñez’s time at first base and designated hitter if his defense ends up being an issue. Nuñez can potentially be a .260-.270 hitter who consistently gets on base frequently while hitting for 20+ home run power. Even if his defense is lackluster, you’re getting Nuñez for his bat, not his defense.
Nuñez is definitely a potential future option at first base. The Pittsburgh Pirates lack a true long-term answer at first. Going into the year, the best long-term prospect in the organization was Mason Martin. But Martin’s 2021 season was highly worrying because of an increasing strikeout rate and decreasing walk rate. Now, he’s batting just .194/.267/.414 with a .295 wOBA and 75 wRC+. Those 15 home runs look nice, but his 37.7% strikeout rate is extremely worrisome.
Nuñez is already at Double-A, so he could take over first base and DH as soon as next season. While he’ll begin his Pirate career with the Altoona Curve, we could see him at least make a few appearances at Triple-A Indianapolis before the end of the season. Nuñez has hit at every stop in the minor leagues and continues to do so at Double-A. He has no glaring weakness in his hitting profile, which is something you like to see. It’s a bonus that he could be ready within the next year.