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What getting Mike Zunino, dealing Mallex Smith deal means to Rays

Mike Zunino was the 2012 college baseball player of the year as a junior at Florida. The Cape Coral native, who was the Mariners' first-round pick in 2012, was recently honored as the 2018 Wilson defensive player of the year for catchers. (Times files 2015)
Mike Zunino was the 2012 college baseball player of the year as a junior at Florida. The Cape Coral native, who was the Mariners' first-round pick in 2012, was recently honored as the 2018 Wilson defensive player of the year for catchers. (Times files 2015)
Published Nov. 9, 2018
Updated Nov. 9, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — It all started, Rays general manager Erik Neander said to beat everyone else to it, "with the bromance, as you know.''

He was having fun, but the funny thing is he was right, too. All those talks Neander and Mariners counterpart Jerry Dipoto have had over the years, public or private, led them to move relatively quickly to make their 10th trade since November 2015.

Which is what left the Rays feeling pretty good Thursday about the opening move of their pivotal offseason, crossing off two needs by acquiring catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia, plus a lottery ticket left arm in 2018 draftee Michael Plassmeyer, in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and minor-leaguer Jake Fraley.

Zunino, 27, gives the Rays a strong defensive catcher, adroit in handling and leading a pitching staff, to pair with Michael Perez. He adds power, though also strikeouts, to their lineup and is praised universally for being a good teammate and clubhouse guy.

Heredia, 27, gives them a top-notch defensive outfielder who can play all three positions. That both hit right-handed makes the Rays lineup more balanced and their roster, which leaned a bit to the left, in Neander's words, "a little bit more functional."

That they did so this early in the offseason is a plus, leaving plenty of time to address other areas. That it didn't cost them too much in money — Zunino projects to make $4.2 million in arbitration; Heredia is pre-arbitration, same as Smith — or prospect inventory allows them to maintain their rare financial flexibility.

So the Rays can still pursue a big right-handed bat to add presence to the middle of their order from a wish list that should start with Nelson Cruz. (Heck, it might not even preclude them from still at least exploring the market for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, just in case.) Their planned move of C.J. Cron becomes even more requisite as he and Zunino profile similarly. They can keep looking for a closer, and maybe a starter.

About the only thing they don't know, and won't for a while, is if they were right in what looked to be selling high on Smith. If his breakthrough 2018 season showed the best he has to offer while masking some of his maddening flaws, or if it was just the start of a run as a dominant leadoff man who can impact games with his bat, glove and feet, and turned him into something of a fan favorite.

Dipoto, who had his own fun welcoming Smith "home" after acquiring him from the Braves and flipping him to the Rays 77 minutes later in January 2017, is confident they got him and his "unique" ability at the right time.

"We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come,'' he said.

Neander also was complimentary, saying they thought "really highly" of Smith and he was "on a really good trajectory with respect to his own development.'' But it also was clear they didn't think Smith was going to be that special, as Neander said several times they were dealing "from an area of depth.''

With centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier probably close to untradable as he's due at least $44 million over the next four-plus years, Austin Meadows ready for an everyday opportunity and Brandon Lowe likely to get more time on the grass than infield dirt, the Rays are deep in lefty-hitting outfielders. And from that group Smith was the most likely to go.

So the question becomes whether Smith, who has now been traded four times by age 25, doing well makes the Rays look bad. Also, if that matters. Especially if the Rays get what they expect from Zunino and Heredia in what Neander called an even, or, actually, "neutral" swap of talent.

Smith had no qualms, saying his understanding of the business kept him from being surprised or upset or disappointed that the Rays gave up on him and that he was "thankful" for the opportunity they gave him. (Also, reflecting his humanitarian side, that what he was "most proud of" during his two years with the Rays was being their nominee for MLB's Roberto Clemente Award.)

Zunino, conversely, was "shocked'' to be traded, though the Cape Coral native and former Gator still living in Gainesville was thrilled to be coming home and excited the Rays wanted him to part of their push to return to the playoffs. "Extremely exciting,'' he said.

The Rays got Zunino for his defense, his top-notch staff handling and pitch blocking and above-average throwing and pitch framing, and pretty much accept he is what he is as a hitter, likely plotting to help him by matching him up with the right right-handers. Heredia, at the least, should be a needed complementary piece.

It was a good day for the Rays. Was it a good deal? More so than Smith, that's going to be up to Zunino to determine.

Maybe this ends up one of those trades that works out for both sides. Then Neander and Dipoto would have something else to talk about.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.