The Rays have a catching problem…..again. It seems that Tampa Bay is still being punished by the baseball gods for not selecting Buster Posey in the 2008 draft.
On Sunday afternoon the Rays 2019 catching savior Travis d’Arnaud officially signed a 2-year deal with the Atlanta Braves for $16MM. According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter), the Rays were negotiating with d’Arnaud through Saturday night. Obviously, their offer fell short.
Now Tampa Bay finds themselves looking for answers behind the plate yet again. The first decision they need to make is whether to tender a contract to Mike Zunino by Decmeber 2nd. While it should be a foregone conclusion that Zunino should not be the Rays starting catcher, he also shouldn’t be dismissed as a viable member of the organization for 2020.
How Did The Rays Get Catching Thin Again?
After Wilson Ramos was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies near the end of the 2018 season, Tampa Bay had only the unproven Michael Perez and veterans Adam Moore and Jesus Sucre on their roster. Sucre and Moore were both outrighted on November 5, 2018 and both elected for free agency leaving Perez as the only catcher on the roster.
Rays Acquire Zunino From Seattle:
On November 8, 2018 the Rays traded Mallex Smith and minor league outfielder Jake Fraley to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Zunino, who attended High School in Cape Coral Florida and is a University of Florida alum. He was coming off a disappointing season in which he hit just .201/.259/.410 with 20 homers in 405 plate appearances and his OPS+ (on-base + slugging adjusted for league, park, etc. 100 is league average) was just 85.
Despite the down 2018 season, he had been very productive between the 2016 and 2017 seasons batting .238/.327/.497 with 37 homers spanning 672 plate appearances for an OPS+ of 122.
The Rays and Zunino had both hoped for a rebound season in 2019 but struggles with the bat continued. In 90 games (also spent time on injured list with quad injury), he hit just .165/.232/.312 with just nine homers in 189 plate appearances and an embarrassing OPS+ of 44.
Decision To Be Made:
According to MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates (here), Zunino is projected to earn $4.9MM in arbitration for the 2020 season. Based on his downward trending performance over the past two seasons (.186/.248/.369 with 29 homers in 694 plate appearances, 67 OPS+), he now profiles more as a backup catcher looking to reestablish his value before hitting the open market than worthy of the $4.9MM projected salary.
Unless the Rays plan on turning the full-time catching duties over to Zunino in 2020, it makes sense to Non-Tender him since acquiring a backup catcher should cost much less and the dollars saved can go into improving the roster either at the catching position or other positions.
The Rays could non-tender Zunino and bring him back as a free agent on a lesser dollar amount. They could also try and extend him before the non-tender date at a lower dollar amount for two years.
This may be a situation where the player is comfortable playing close to home and enjoys playing for the organization. A two-year deal with a low base salary of around $2.5MM per season with around $1.5MM in incentives for games played each year could be a perfect fit for both Zunino and the Rays.
There are certainly many many warts with Zunino’s game right now. He strikes out too much, doesn’t make enough contact, and thus is a dead spot in the lineup. He does do a good job controlling the running game and handling the pitching staff. For a team contending for an AL East title and beyond, an upgrade at the catching position is absolutely required. But having a good catching tandem is also paramount as injuries always seem to hit the position.
The Rays saw this first hand as they used six catchers in the seasons first two plus months (Zunino, Perez, d’Arnaud, Nick Ciuffo, Anthony Bemboom, Erik Kratz). Shutting the door on a Rays/Zunino reunion before exploring the possibility of a one-year contract or a two year extension would be negligent on the part of the front office.
A comparable backup catcher and corresponding contract is Martin Maldonado who signed a 1-year/$2.5MM contract with $1.4MM in incentives with the Kansas City Royals prior to the 2019 season. He had remained unsigned all winter, but an injury to Salvador Perez in spring training opened the door for the Royals to extend an offer. In the two seasons prior to signing with the Royals, Maldanado hit .223/.276/.360 with an OPS+ of 73. This could be the framework for a 1-year deal for Zunino or creatively expand it to a 2-year deal.
Who Do Rays Target At Catcher:
There are a lot of names that will be mentioned for Tampa Bay at catcher. From free agents like Robinson Chirinos to trade candidates James McCann and Wilson Contreras. The list is long as everyone will play the “who’s who of Rays catching targets.”
Dominik Vega at Draysbay.com takes at an intriguing candidate in Jason Castro in his article (here). Castro who spent the 2019 season with the Minnesota Twins batted .232/.332/.435 with 13 homers in spanning 275 plate appearances posting a 101 OPS+. Dominik digs into him more including his defensive metrics, in the linked article. It’s well worth the read.
Whatever the Rays do at catcher, they shouldn’t discount working out a way to keep Zunino in the fold as a backup. I would not tender him a contract if it meant guaranteeing him $4.9MM, but as we know from the Corey Dickerson saga a few years ago, arbitration salaries are not guaranteed until certain dates in spring training.
The Rays could tender Zunino and continue to negotiate with him past the December 2nd date. The only certainty is that whether or not the Rays keep Zunino, they need to upgrade the catching position once again.