On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they re-signed catcher Mike Zunino to a one-year, $3-Million deal which includes an option for the 2022 season. Tampa Bay now has a returning catcher that is beloved by the pitching staff and is conscious of the challenges of the job.
Some of it is really very simple, some of it is really unique where we really try and pull the pitchers’ strengths out. And then I think you look at the overall stuff that our pitchers feature. It’s really really potent electric stuff and it takes some time for a catcher to be able to recognize and adjust.— Kevin Cash
Zunino came over from Seattle in a November 2018 trade which sent former outfielder, Mallex Smith, to the Mariners. He has two full seasons of experience in Tampa Bay under his belt, and the backstop fits well into the team’s culture, which Rays skipper Kevin Cash spoke about in a Zoom call with the media following the deal.
There’s consistency to it but it doesn’t move the same way every single game. And the more reps catchers can get and get familiar with it and see the adjustments on a day to day basis those pitches make, the better equipped they’re going to be able to handle it in a game situation.— Kevin Cash
Defensively, the Florida native is well-respected as a game-caller and a handler of pitchers, although according to Statcast, his framing ability has been on the decline over the last two seasons. Superlatives aside, Zunino’s offensive prowess has been his biggest knock over the last two seasons. While it seemed that Zunino would develop into an offense-first catcher early on in his career — he slugged 90 home runs with Seattle from 2014-18 — he slashed just .161 BA/.233 OBP/.323 SLG/.556 OPS across 373 plate appearances in a Rays uniform. He did bolster his résumé with a big performance in the 2020 ALCS, however.
Given that Zunino is the only big-league catcher on the 40-man roster, the Rays will remain active in free-agent and trade talks to acquire one or two more catchers this offseason. As Neil Solondz (Rays Radio) noted, “some of the free agents available (in alphabetical order) include Alex Avila, Curt Casali, Jason Castro, and Austin Romine. There are also teams that are carrying five or six catchers on their 40-man, so there could be an opportunity to add one via a minor trade.” Rene Pinto and prospects Brett Sullivan and Ronaldo Hernandez will also get looks during Spring Training.
As for the terms of his contract, Zunino will earn $2-Million in guaranteed salary — which is less than half of what the team would have paid Zunino had they picked up his $4.5-Million club option last month — while the deal also includes a $1-Million option buyout. The club option for 2022 is worth between $4-7-Million depending on playing time.