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.
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.
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.
He was universally respected in the Mariners’ clubhouse even at a young age because of his freakish strength, his good nature, his willingness to work and always put the pitchers and their needs ahead of his own. They also knew he had their back on the field.
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) November 8, 2018
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.
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.
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.
|vs RHP (2018)|
|vs RHP (Career)|
|vs LHP (2018)|
|vs LHP (Career)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.