MINNEAPOLIS -- When Twins manager Paul Molitor was serving as the club's first-base coach and infield coordinator in 2014, Eduardo Nunez confided in him that he had always dreamt of being an everyday player.
It was Nunez's first season with the Twins, and he arrived having never had that chance to be a regular in his four years with the Yankees, as he was a much-hyped prospect, but couldn't crack a starting lineup that had Derek Jeter at shortstop, Alex Rodriguez at third base and Robinson Cano at second base. The Twins acquired him for a Minor League pitcher in April 2014.
Nunez developed into a solid utility player with Minnesota over the next two seasons before finally getting his chance this year after early-season injuries to third baseman Trevor Plouffe and shortstop Eduardo Escobar. Nunez has made the most of that opportunity, hitting .321/.351/.485 with nine homers, 10 doubles, 25 RBIs, 33 runs and 16 stolen bases in 60 games.
"In 2014, I talked to Molitor, and I told him I wish one day to be an everyday player, and he always had that in mind," Nunez said. "If somebody gets hurt, if he needs something, I want to be there, and he knows. I worked all my life for this opportunity."
In a deeply disappointing season for the Twins, who had postseason aspirations, Nunez stands out as one of the club's bright spots. The organization has even launched a #VoteNunez campaign to promote him as an All-Star candidate even though he's not on the ballot.
Nunez, who turned 29 on Wednesday, said he's not surprised by his breakout season, as he believes he's always been capable of this, but never had a prolonged chance to prove it.
"I think I'm the same player, I just have more an opportunity to play," Nunez said. "I think the key is more consistent playing time. I know that because I'm in the lineup I can make adjustments quicker than before. Before, I used to play once a week, and it was hard to make adjustments."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Nunez simply had too many premium players ahead of him on the depth chart in New York, but called Nunez one of his "all-time favorites," and was happy to see him find success in Minnesota.
"He's having a great year and he's played all over the place," Girardi said. "He's moved around, he's hit for power, he's hit for average. You can make an argument that right now he's their All-Star candidate. We had everyday shortstops here and there wasn't always a lot of playing time for him. It's tough for young kids when they don't get that consistent playing time."
As Girardi noted, Nunez has been showing more power than ever this season, considering his career high in homers entering the year was four, and he already has nine. He attributes it to better mechanics, as he's consciously trying to drive the ball into the air more. It's evident in his average launch angle, as it was 2.9 degrees last year, but 8.2 degrees in 2016, per Statcast™. It's helped him increase his flyball rate by nearly 10 percentage points from last season, while seeing his groundball rate plummet from 56.8 percent to 49.8 percent. He's homering on a career-best 13 percent of his fly balls.
His line-drive rate is roughly in line with his career norm, and he's hitting the ball a bit harder this season, as his average exit velocity is 90.1 mph compared to 89.4 mph in 2015, per Statcast™. He's hitting .344 on balls in play, which is higher than his career rate of .301, but that's not uncommon for a player with his kind of skillset and speed.
So the numbers don't paint this as a completely unsustainable stretch for Nunez, but Molitor said it's still too early to say if he projects as an everyday player for the rest of his career. Nunez's defense has always been a concern, but even that's seen improvement with more regular playing time while overtaking Escobar as the starting shortstop.
"It's a slippery slope as far as projecting a guy into that role who has played well for a couple months," Molitor said. "If you base it on how he's performed, it's easy to speculate he could be one of those guys who sheds the role as a utility guy. But I think it's too early for that. I'm hopeful for that. It would be great for our team and for his career, but we're just going to ride it for right now."
For now, Nunez is also just enjoying the ride, and knows it could take many twists and turns going forward, especially considering he could be a trade candidate this July. But his plan is to continue trying to prove he's worthy of being a big league regular.
"I love it," Nunez said. "I wish I could've played every day throughout my career. But I understand what happened in New York. I didn't have a chance there. But I feel like I have a chance here, and I want to prove that to everybody, the manager, the GM."