5 things about the Rays’ Mike Zunino-Mallex Smith deal

Rays outfielder Mallex Smith had been hospitalized with a viral infection and put on the 10-day disabled list. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Rays outfielder Mallex Smith had been hospitalized with a viral infection and put on the 10-day disabled list. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published November 8 2018
Updated November 8 2018

Five things about the trade between the Rays and Mariners agreed to late Wednesday, with the Rays getting C Mike Zunino, OF Guillermo Heredia and 2008 draftee LHP Michael Plassmeyer, and the Mariners getting OF Mallex Smith and OF prospect Jake Fraley. Assuming all goes well the medicals and other details, an announcement seems likely on Thursday.

1. The Rays were aggressive in filling one of their primary needs. In Mike Zunino, they have the RH-hitting catcher they sought to pair with Michael Perez and give them a solid two-way duo. And they did well to get someone as strong defensively as Zunino, who earlier Wednesday won the Wilson award as the top defensive catcher in the majors, rather than signing a veteran free agent. Zunino led all catchers with 12 defensive runs saved, per fangraphs.com, and caught 18 of 52 basestealers, a 34.6 rate. His .998 fielding percentage was third best in the Al, and fifth in the majors, among qualifying catchers. His 3.86 catcher ERA was fifth in the AL. Offensively, the Rays would be happy with something between his rough 2018, when he hit .201, 20 HRs, 44 RBIs, .669 OPS, and his solid 2017, with .251, 25, 64, .840

2. The Rays sold (they hope) high on Mallex Smith. Once the Rays acquired lefty-swinging Austin Meadows from Pittsburgh in the July 31 Chris Archer trade, Smith seemed to be the odd man out as it would be clunky to carry three lefty-hitting outfielders. But then Smith played so well down the stretch that you wondered if they would be worried about sending him elsewhere. Smith was impressive, hitting .296 with 27 doubles, 10 triples and 40 steals, posting a .367 on-base percentage as part of a .773 OPS, developing into a legit force at the top of the order. He made improvements defensively as well, though there will were the occasional moments when the Mallex effect was not a good thing. In essence, the Rays are gambling that he won't be as good consistently going forward. Though Smith became something of a fan favorite, trading him always seemed more likely then parting ways with franchise face Kevin Kiermaier.

3. Guillermo Heredia is a key part of the deal. The Rays see Heredia as a smooth defender capable of playing all three positions well, and providing the depth they will need behind the likely starting trio of Tommy Pham, Kiermaier and Meadows. Think of Heredia, a Cuban, as filling a role similar to what Smith did previously, but as a right-handed hitter. Heredia hasn't been a major contributor offensively, but the Rays are hoping he found something in September, when he hit .414 with a 1.169 OPS over his final 18 games.

4. There's something about Jerry. Rays GM Erik Neander and Mariners counterpart Jerry DiPoto have a good relationship, mutual respect, similar ways of valuing players. And they obviously can relate to each other well. This was the 10th deal between the teams since DiPoto took over as GM of the Mariners in September 2015. That included the January 2017 deal when the Rays got LHP Ryan Yarbrough, minor-league SS Carlos Vargas and Smith, who had been acquired earlier in the day from Atlanta. Smith had good humor about the situation, referring to his time in Seattle as "some of the best 77 minutes of my life. It was awesome. The environment was crazy. It was electric. … I'm still getting fan mail from the Mariners fans about all the work I put in over there." The previous deal between the teams had been the biggest, with the Rays sending closer Alex Colome and outfielder Denard Span to Seattle last May for two minor-leaguers.

5. It was a good first step for the Rays in spending money to improve. With a youth-laden roster allowing them to field a team for less than $30 million, the Rays clearly have financial flexibility. And they willing to use some of that in acquiring Zunino, who is projected to make $4.2 million this season via arbitration and  will be eligible again in 2020 before heading to free agency, in exchange for Smith, who won't be eligible for arbitration until 2020 and free agency until 2023. Of course, the bigger issue will be whether the Rays are willing to get into the bidding from some of the higher-shelf hitters they are talking about, a group led by Nelson Cruz that also includes Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen. The Zunino deal did indicate they weren't  going to be players for Miami C J.T. Realmuto, most likely a reflection that they weren't going to give up the prospects and young players. The two-for-one swap of big-leaguers will fill the Rays 40-man roster, as they will need room by Nov. 20 to add a likely four-six prospects.

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