The Tampa Bay Rays have made a slew of heavily publicized moves this offseason, including the largest free agent signing in franchise history and a couple of three team trades.
However, their first move of the offseason, may have been their best and most underrated.
Back in November, the Tampa Bay Rays made yet another trade with the Seattle Mariners and it addressed one of the team’s most significant needs, adding a top notch catcher.
Mike Zunino, Come On Down!
On November 20th, the Rays sent breakout outfielder, Mallex Smith, to the Mariners for backstop, Mike Zunino, and outfielder, Guillermo Heredia. There were also a couple of minor leaguers swapped in the deal as well.
Mallex Smith took over as the Rays starting center fielder for the bulk of the 2018 season, taking Kevin Kiermaier’s place as he spent another season mostly on the Injured List. Smith would hit .296/.367/.406 with 2 HR and collected 40 stolen bases over 141 games played for the Rays last year, accuring 3.4 fWAR (2nd most among position players on the team).
The Rays, faced with a stacked outfield of Tommy Pham, Austin Meadows, and Kevin Kiermaier, decided to sell high on Mallex Smith as soon as the offseason began, and jettisoned him to the Mariners.
In return, the Rays received one of the top catchers in all of baseball, Mike Zunino, who is among the top tier of backstop regarding his catching abilities and potential offensive output. Also, not to mention, that Zunino is still under contract through the 2020 season, giving the Rays potentially two seasons to work with.
In January, MLB Network ranked Zunino as the 9th best catcher in all of baseball. Over the past three calendar year, Zunino ranks 6th in fWAR, 5th in HR, 5th in SLG%, 12th in wOBA, and 8th in wRC+ among catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
Heck, even in fantasy baseball he’s a stud. Jeff Zimmerman of RotoGraphs grouped all of the starting catchers in baseball into tiers. JT Realmuto and Gary Sanchez represented the upper echelon of backstops, while Mike Zunino was slotted into the tier just below them.
If fantasy baseball is short hand for quality, the long form analysis would show the same. By the updated catcher metrics in fWAR, Zunino ranks fifth in baseball over the last two seasons, and is in the top-10 catchers across projection systems, including PECOTA.
Mike Zunino is Good
Earlier this month, Darby Robinson wrote about Mike Zunino and the improvements he has made in order to become among the best in the game.
Over the past 10 years, Mike Zunino has had the 15th largest increase of career fWAR now that they have included framing metrics (old friend and Catcher Framing canary in the coal mine Jose Molina was 4th most). Zunino takes immense pride in working with pitchers, throwing out baserunners (28.32 CS% is 19th best of all active Catchers), framing pitches, and doing all the little things to help his pitching staff succeed.
Zunino struggled in 2018, but was hampered by injuries all year long, particularly related to his oblique. Nonetheless, he still crushed 20 home runs over the course of 405 plate appearances. The Rays are hoping for a fully healthy 2019 campaign from Zunino, that could potentially lead him to replicating his breakout numbers from the 2017 season, in which he hit .251/.331/.509 and produced 3.9 fWAR.
The Rays also got a perfect replacement for Smith in their “fourth” outfielder, Guillermo Heredia, who is among the better defenders in the game. His offensive capabilities have been lackluster thus far, and in practice slots fifth on the depth chart behind free agent Avisail Garcia, but there is promise in his approach and he made a point to fine tune his swing this offseason that has led to more pop at the plate.
Both Zunino and Heredia have made their way onto the the Rays Opening Day roster, with Zunino being penciled in the Rays starting catcher, meanwhile, Heredia will serve as the 25th man in the reserve outfielder.
This aggressive, early move by the Rays in the slow offseason should be lauded not only for its quality, but its cost. The other top-tier catchers to move this off-season were Yasmani Grandal, who cost nearly $20 million (and what would have docked the Rays a top-40 pick in the draft), and J.T. Realmuto, who was traded for a prospect on par with Brent Honeywell Jr..
Make no mistake, Mike Zunino is a star, and the Rays were able to acquire him by dealing from a position of depth on the major league roster before any other teams could swoop in, bringing a Florida boy home to his roots and solidifying the Rays catcher position for at least two seasons to come.
What’s not to love?