Both Eduardo Nunez and Marcus Semien put together useful fantasy seasons a year ago. From my perspective, as a long term Semien owner in a dynasty format, I was waiting on this type of year from Semien for some time. Nunez was a bit more of a surprise, specifically on the raw numbers side of things rather than on his rate stats. In this day and age, 40 stolen bases is elite, which is why Nunez is being drafted as a top 12 shortstop as of the writing of this article.
Shortstop is an extremely talented position this year on the top end. Not everyone will be able to nab one of the top 7 shortstops, which means some will be left with the “scraps.” Enter Nunez. While he did not have quite the breakout as Jonathan Villar, he did go 16/40 with a .288 average, which will make him a highly sought after commodity this year. Nunez had an all fields approach last year (35% pull, 30% oppo) and has a quality hit tool that allowed him to hit for a high enough average to be on base at a league average rate. From an “at the plate” perspective, given that he was virtually identical in 2015 as he was in 2016 on a rate basis, expecting him to continue to be a very solid contact hitter is more than reasonable. It is likely that 16 is the high watermark for home runs, given his batted ball profile and free swinging tendencies that allow him to make a lot of contact but not always the best type of contact. Even if he regresses in the power department, 8-12 home runs (which is similar to what ZiPS projects over a full season of plate appearances) is still useful from a middle infielder as long as he is contributing in other areas.
I recently drafted Nunez in a 12 team, head to head, 5 keeper, net stolen base, OBP league. In this league, my keepers were Starling Marte, Justin Turner, Brian Dozier, Freddie Freeman, and Danny Duffy. I drafted Nunez because most of the top shortstops were already kept, and Nunez (30 NSB) combined with Marte (35 NSB) should give my team a high likelihood of winning steals on a weekly basis. He will not be an asset in an OBP league like he would be in a batting average league, but he should not kill me there either. However, there is a very real concern with investing heavily in a 29-year-old coming off his first productive fantasy season. Nonetheless, it is also worrisome to invest in a speedster who was on a bad team that allowed him to run wild and is now on a good team that could certainly tighten the reigns.
Fortunately, Nunez having both third base and shortstop eligibility makes him an asset that you can draft early and still supplement with an insurance policy later. He is built in injury depth for Turner (and Matt Carpenter, who I also drafted), but I can choose to start or not start Nunez on a weekly basis, depending on how adept my opponent is in the speed department.
Because of this, Marcus Semien ends up being somewhat of an ideal alternative. Semien is sure to be detrimental weekly for my team’s on base percentage, but his power output gives me the added flexibility I referenced above. Unless Semien drastically changes his approach, he looks to be a player who sells out for power. His pull percentage, ISO, outfield fly ball, and extra base hit percentage were all in the top 70th or higher percentile of all baseball players, not just shortstops. He hits a lot of fly balls and has a lot of soft contact when he does not square one up (which is frequently), so his BABIP is likely to continue to be low despite being somewhat fast. Semien and Brad Miller had a similar profile last year, which makes either of these two a very good substitute for Nunez if he busts.
Additionally, Semien was basically a poor man’s Justin Turner last year. He hit the same amount of home runs, had slightly worse run production, and had a big drop in OBP. If Turner gets injured or reverts back to his pre-breakout utility man production (the latter of which is unlikely), having a power bat to substitute at shortstop with Nunez sliding over to third should be able to keep me afloat. In these types of formats, it is difficult to carry a deep bench due to many teams looking to utilize two start pitchers each week. Having a quality backup with at least one special skill and a starter with multi-positional eligibility gives a team added utility.
In short, it is okay to draft Nunez as early as he is going despite how volatile his expected outcomes are for this season. While insurance is usually best used in protecting your most valuable assets, Nunez’s flexibility and contrast to Semien or the aforementioned Miller very useful players to target later on in drafts. For reference, I was able to draft Nunez in the 7th and Semien in the 17th. Keep in mind that this strategy is not a straight insurance play. That is partially behind the tactic, but being able to shift from a speed heavy team to a power heavy team on a week-to-week basis while possessing two players who broke out last year is just as important as having an injury replacement ready to plug in if an infielder goes down.
Ben has been at RotoGraphs since 2012 and focuses most of his fantasy baseball attention toward dynasty and keeper leagues.