The Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners made the first significant trade of the 2018-19 offseason, sending outfielder Mallex Smith to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia. Tampa Bay could also include an additional lower-level prospect in the agreement, writes Ryan Divish (Seattle Times). The deal is pending medical reviews, so nothing is official just yet.
Zunino, 27, is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $4.2-Million through arbitration this winter and is under team control until 2020, while Smith is not yet arbitration-eligible after narrowly avoiding Super-Two status, and is controlled through 2022.
The deal marks the second time in the past two seasons that Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has acquired Smith, although his original tenure with the Mariners was measured in hours. Dipoto traded for Smith from the Braves in a deal that sent Luiz Gohara to Atlanta. Yet Smith was promptly flipped to Tampa Bay in order to acquire Drew Smyly. Unfortunately for Seattle, Smyly injured his arm in Spring Training 2017, an injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery before he ever threw a pitch in Seattle.
Zunino brings about pole to pole power and premium defensive skills, yet, he pairs those highly vaunted attributes with a blemished 34.2% career strikeout rate and questionable on-base skills. He’s coming off a disappointing 2018 campaign in which he slashed .201 BA/.251 OBP/.406 SLG/.657 OPS, albeit with 20 homers. Yet he is just a season removed from a .251 BA/.339 OBP/.509 SLG/.848 OPS campaign with a career-high 25 homers. Over the last three seasons, Zunino has performed to a combined .223 BA/.300 OBP/.462 SLG/.762 OPS line with 57 homers across 1032 plate appearances.
As Steve Adams (MLB Trade Rumors) notes, Zunino’s average and OBP might not jump out, but when adjusting for the Mariners’ pitcher-friendly home park, that level of production rates at about seven percent better than the league-average hitter and nearly 20 percent better than that of a league-average catcher (by measure of OPS and wRC+).
Defensively, Zunino is a strong throwing/framing catcher with more power than just about any catcher in the game, Wilson Ramos precluded. He threw out a career-high 35% of would-be base stealers last season, and he continually ranks among the league leaders in terms of pitch framing — boasting an 8.5 oStr% (tied for 14th behind John Ryan Murphy) and 27 +Calls according to Stat Corner.
The acquisition could push Michael Perez from a starting role to a backup job, although Perez was impressive in his brief Major League promotion last season — hitting .284 BA/.304 OBP/.392 SLG/.696 OPS with a homer and five doubles, while also throwing out 29% of would-be base stealers (17 total). In all likelihood, Zunino and Perez, who has received good defensive ratings throughout his minor league career, will battle it out for the starting position in Spring Training. Whatever the case, the platoon gives Tampa Bay a couple of solid defenders behind the plate.
Heredia, 28, is similar to Smith in that he’s a speedy outfielder (ranking 55/55 in speed according to FanGraphs), with minimal power, who is capable of handling all three outfield positions. He, however, has amassed poor defensive ratings in centerfield (-9 DRS in 2018), though he grades out above-average in the outfield corners. He hit .236 BA/.318 OBP/.342 SLG/.660 OPS with the Mariners across 337 plate appearances last season.
Heredia is not likely to get the bulk of the reps in the outfield, which should feature Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows as starters. He, however, could give the Rays a nice bench option, or depth at Triple-A since he has multiple minor league options remaining.