Rather than relying on free agency to find the center fielder his team desperately needs, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto turned to a familiar trade partner — the Tampa Bay Rays. In the end, both clubs got something they needed.

Late yesterday, the Mariners dealt catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia along with minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to the Tampa Bay Rays for center fielder Mallex Smith and prospect Jake Fraley.

LISTEN: Churchill on the Zunino-Mallex Trade (Subscriber-Only)

Zunino was the longest-tenured Mariner other than Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager. Ironically, Dipoto previously acquired Smith along with reliever Shae Simmons on January 11, 2017 only to deal him 77 minutes later to Tampa in a four-player swap netting Seattle southpaw starter Drew Smyly.

Farewell Mike

The third overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, Zunino’s tour with Seattle was bumpy from the start. Less than a year after the draft, the Mariners short-shortsightedly promoted him to the majors due to a lack of organizational depth at the catcher position. His development as a hitter suffered as a result.

When Dipoto took over baseball operations, he acquired veteran catchers Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger so Zunino could begin the 2016 season with Class-AAA Tacoma. Essentially, the organization rebooted the player the previous regime mishandled.

In 2017, Zunino began showing signs of being a solid-hitting catcher. His 25 home runs and .251/.331/.509 triple-slash were well above league-average for backstops. Unfortunately, an oblique injury just before the 2018 season opener affected his bat skills for the entire year.

Here’s how Zunino stacked up against 21 MLB catchers with 350-plus plate appearances this year. The results were sub-optimal.

Stat
Zunino
MLB Rnk
HR
20
4
AVG
.201
19
OBP
.259
21
SLG
.410
10
wRC+
84
17
fWAR
1.5
13

Just to be clear, Mike Zunino wasn’t the problem with Seattle’s offense last year. Sure, better production from the six-year veteran would’ve been nice. But the lineup was chock full of underperformers.

It’s also important to note Zunino’s leadership value to the clubhouse. As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times mentioned last night, the Mariners’ catcher was a leader ever since debuting with the club in 2013.

With Zunino, the Rays are getting a catcher recognized for superb defensive prowess. His 12 defensive runs saved (DRS) this season tied him for second most among MLB catchers with Sandy Leon of the Red Sox and Austin Hedges of the Padres. Only Jeff Mathis of the Diamondbacks was better with 17 DRS.

Just as important, Zunino has a superb reputation for handling pitching staffs. Considering the rather large stable of young arms in Tampa, the former Florida Gator will have plenty of opportunities to serve as a mentor.

Financially, Zunino projects to make $4.2 million in salary arbitration next year. Perhaps the budget conscious Rays attempt to work out a deal with their new acquisition that avoids arbitration and helps the club control their budget.

A Skilled Defender

Entering last season, Heredia was a reserve outfielder, but an unforeseen situation thrust him into a more prominent role. When Robinson Cano was suspended 80-games, the team moved Opening Day center fielder Dee Gordon to second base and Heredia took Gordon’s spot in the outfield.

The more Heredia played, the more his shortcomings were exposed. The 27-year-old is a skilled outfield defender, but his career production numbers suggest he’s best used as a right-handed hitting platoon or a defensive replacement.

We Hardly Knew Ya

Plassmeyer saw limited pro action after being drafted this year. He tossed just 24 innings with Short-Season Everett this summer.

It’s tough to gauge what ’Plassmeyer develops into with Tampa since they’re employing innovative approaches to maximize pitcher value. Maybe, he’ll be the club’s Opening Day opener sometime in the future.

Welcome Back

Smith became expendable when the Rays acquired Austin Meadows from the Pirates in the deal sending Chris Archer to Pittsburgh this summer. Currently, Tampa’s main outfielders are Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, and Meadows.

While Smith isn’t a superstar, he represents a significant upgrade over the production Dipoto’s club got from the center field last season. In fact, the 25-year-old’s offensive stats would’ve ranked very well on the 2018 Mariners. Look for yourself.

Stat
Smith
Rnk on M's
SB
40
1
2B
27
4
3B
10
1
BB%
8.6%
6
SO%
18%
6
AVG
.296
3
OBP
.367
2
SLG
.406
7
BsR
6.6
1
Sprint Spd
29.8 ft/sec
1
wRC+
117
4
fWAR
3.4
3

According to sprint speed, be found at Baseball Savant, Smith was slightly quicker than Gordon in 2018 and he’s much younger. In fairness to Gordon, the 30-year-old dealt with the lingering effects of a broken toe for most of the season.

Smith doesn’t necessarily need to be the leadoff hitter, but his combination of good on-base ability and plus-speed make him an ideal candidate for the role.

Although Smith’s 2018 stats look great, it’s important to note he enjoyed significantly more success against left-handed pitching this year than in the past.

Here’s a quick comparison of Smith’s 2018 platoon splits next to his career numbers.

AVG
OBP
SLG
wRC+
vs RHP (2018)
.285
.362
.399
114
vs RHP (Career)
.282
.355
.399
109
vs LHP (2018)
.337
.384
.433
67
vs LHP (Career)
.256
.310
.328
129
Lge AVG
.248
.318
.409
100

Considering Smith just finished his first full season, productivity against southpaws merits watching next year.

Since Smith isn’t arbitration-eligible until after the 2020 season, he’ll earn approximately the same salary in 2019 that he did this year ($553 thousand).

Needed Depth Piece

Even if Fraley turns out to be more than organizational depth for the Mariners, that’s something they desperately need.

On three occasions last season, Seattle’s lack of outfield depth was obvious. First, when Ben Gamel went down in Spring Training with an injury, the team turned to 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki.

When Gordon returned to second base, Dipoto went go outside the organization again to acquire Denard Span to find a quality outfielder.

Finally, the club added veteran Cameron Maybin in July because they needed another capable right-handed hitting outfielder.

Perhaps Fraley can be a fourth infielder type by the end of next season or in 2020.

Moving Forward

The Zunino trade and recent departure of Chris Herrmann leaves only one catcher on the Mariners’ 40-man roster — David Freitas. Obviously, Dipoto addresses the shortage prior to pitchers and catchers reporting to Peoria next February.

It’s not just the catcher position affected by this trade. Smith’s arrival signals Gordon is definitely no longer part of the outfield mix. Even before the deal, Dipoto told Greg Johns and Maria Guardado of MLB.com, “Clearly we feel we’re a little short in the outfield, particularly center field.”

Dipoto went on to say his club needed to “sort through the positional distribution between Robbie Cano, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura and the like.” This suggests further trades or position swaps involving the trio.

If the solution to the Mariner’s middle-infield logjam involves moving Cano to first base and designated hitter, the futures of Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach with the club are likely impacted too.

Adding Smith immediately lengthens the Mariners’ lineup. Having a credible alternative to Mitch Haniger in the leadoff spot gives manager Scott Servais the option of moving Smith to the top of the order and moving Haniger down. This matters with cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz not expected to return.

The addition of both Smith and Fraley also reinforces Dipoto’s longstanding desire to build a more athletic outfield capable of delivering excellent defense.

Finally

In of itself, yesterday’s trade is insignificant. Sure, the Mariners improved in center field, added a hitter with on-base ability, and created more outfield depth. But the team is no closer to being a serious contender than they were two days ago.

Time will tell whether the Zunino-Smith trade was the beginning of a larger overhaul or simply the first in a series of tweaks to the roster. If it’s the latter, the Mariners will remain irrelevant in the standings next year.

Having said that, it’s only the first week of November. I suggest we collectively take a deep breath and give Dipoto a chance to reshape his roster before passing judgement on the direction he’s taking the organization. He’s proven to be an innovative dealmaker in the past and he’ll likely remain active in the trade market between now and Spring Training.

As for Zunino, he’s an all-round good dude who deserves credit for putting his team before his personal accomplishments. Hopefully a change of scenery helps him fulfill the potential that compelled the Mariners to select him so high in the draft.

Mike Zunino is the kind of guy we all can root for, regardless of the uniform he wears.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

5 Comments

  1. What is a realistic return for Paxton? Two years away from free agency (and Scott Boras doesn’t do extensions). Feels like this trade will happen any day now…

  2. Great summary, I like the trade bit more than Luke. I think it is a creative move that upgrades 3 positions, CF, 2B, and 1B — and opens up the opportunity for an upgrade at C either through trade or FA. They get better defense at CF and 2B, and as good or better defense with 100 games from Cano at 1B. (I am not a fan of Healy’s defense at 1B).

    I think we can reasonably dream on a Dee Gordon bounce back at the plate. Playing out of position affects some guys (Chone Figgins), you may get a bump from Gordon on a return to the infield. Gordon had been 3.5 WAR or better in 3 of his 4 full seasons — that is a valuable piece.

  3. That Oblique tweek early in the season did not help either.

  4. In 1967 Otis Redding (Sittin on the Dock by the Bay) said it best…
    “Looks like nothin gonna to change
    Everything seems to stay the same
    I can’t do what 10 people tell me to do
    So I guess I’ll remain the same”

    In 2018 ………….
    ” Looks like the Mariners are trying to change
    But some how everything seems the same
    Jerry can’t do what fans what him to do
    So they’re (probably) going to remain the same ”

    Here’s to Jerry. We’re trusting in you.
    It’s not the first time.
    We trusted Jackie Z
    Now it’s Jerry’s turn……..
    Be bold, Be sensible, Be reckless, Above all be right!!!

  5. I don’t believe that rushing Zunino has anything to do with him being such an overall bad hitter (albeit one with power). Yes, in the beginning it slowed him and he was sent back down to the minors. But,rushing players can hurt their confidence that some cannot overcome.

    However, Zunino overcame that and has had stretches of very good hitting.

    His inability to make contact is because of bad mechanics, not being rushed.

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