It is no surprise to anyone who follows Mariners baseball, or indeed Major League Baseball in general, that the first ‘breaking news’ worthy trade to break on baseball Twitter this offseason involved Jerry Dipoto.
On this occasion, the centrepieces of the trade are Mike Zunino, the Mariners’ 2012 first round draft pick (third overall) and first choice catcher for much of the time since 2014, and Mallex Smith. This was confirmed at just after 17:00 GMT on Thursday, and also involves Guillermo Heredia and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer being sent to the Rays, with Seattle also acquiring High-A prospect outfield Jake Fraley in return.
A popular figure in the Mariners clubhouse for players, journalists and fans alike, Zunino makes for an interesting trade candidate. It is no secret that he has had frequent struggles at the plate, with far too many strikeouts, a very low OBP and a batting average that has, for much of his time in the Major Leagues, flirted around the Mendoza Line of .200.
That being said, when at his best Zunino has proved to be a very capable power hitter, with 95 career MLB home runs in 587 games in a Mariners uniform and is, without question, one of the best defensive players in the game behind home plate, with improvement still definitely possible. He is also only one year removed from his best career numbers in 2017, when he slashed .251/.331/.509 with 25 home runs and 64 RBIs.
Also set to go the other way is Guillermo Heredia, another likeable player who served as the Mariners’ fourth outfielder in 2018. Heredia hit .236/.318/.342 in 2018, with 5 long balls and 2 stolen bases to go with it, along with providing some decent defense. That being said, he was truly a liability on the basepaths, and an upgrade would not go amiss in his position, particularly with the departure of free agent Cameron Maybin and a general understanding that the Dee Gordon CF experiment will not carry over into 2019.
Now, to ex-Mariner Mallex Smith, who returns for a stay in Seattle longer than the 77 minutes he was a part of the organisation in January 2017 prior to being moved to the Rays as part of the Drew Smyly deal (the same Drew Smyly, of course, who then required Tommy John Surgery in Spring Training and never pitched an inning for the Mariners in the Majors).
The 25 year old comes off a career best season in 2018 in which his slash line was .296/.367/.406, with a WAR of 3.5. He also swiped 40 bags and led the league in triples with 10 on the season; at face value appearing to be a good fit for the sizeable hole the Mariners have in centre.
This is a tough trade to call. Mike Zunino is both popular and a fantastic defensive catcher, and to let him go will not be a decision that serial trade market dealer Jerry Dipoto has taken lightly. That being said, for all Zunino’s talent and work ethic behind the dish has been obvious, the market is packed with affordable free-agent catchers this offseason, albeit many over the age of 30, and Dipoto has clearly deemed CF as being the priority position to strengthen as the offseason begins. If Smith emulates the numbers he put up in 2018, then in terms of every statistical metric offensively, and indeed defensively in the outfield, then the trade could prove to be a good one, particularly when examining Zunino’s strikeout rate and that miserable OBP.
Yet there is no guarantee. The true impact and success of this trade will not be understood until the season re-commences in the Spring, so a watching brief will be the course of action as we currently stand.
This trade will not change the odds in Vegas or the UK from a betting perspective of success in 2019, but makes them both interesting in their own way: the Mariners because no one really knows what their next step may be, and the Rays because they now have a quality defensive catcher to go with their unique pitching set up in Tampa.
As a final word, some appreciation for Mike Zunino. An ever present since I started following the Mariners, he has given Mariners fans some fine moments, as well as some stellar displays of catching since his debut, and the clubhouse will miss him.
Looking ahead to 2019, it will be very interesting to see who Dipoto lines up to start the season in Japan against Oakland behind home plate. There are sure to be some interesting times ahead.