Rays tales: Why Mike Zunino is a perfect fit for Tampa Bay

Catcher Mike Zunino's work behind the play and power hitting were key reasons why Tampa Bay traded for him. But there's much more to the former Florida Gators standout.  JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times
Catcher Mike Zunino's work behind the play and power hitting were key reasons why Tampa Bay traded for him. But there's much more to the former Florida Gators standout. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published Nov. 10, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG —There are a number of statistical reasons why Mike Zunino is a logical addition for the Rays.

His 34.6 caught stealing rate ranked among the AL leaders, as did his .998 fielding percentage. He was tied for first with 12 defensive runs saved, a factor in winning the Wilson award as the top defensive catcher. His 3.86 catcher ERA was fifth in the AL. He grades out above average in pitch-framing metrics, and even better in blocking. Plus, he was one of only three AL catchers to hit 20 homers, helping to a team that ranked 14th in the AL with 150. Zunino's 5.1 WAR over 2017-18 is among the best for backstops.

But there are other reasons the Rays liked him.

Zunino is a solid player, but an even better person.

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And on a team of mostly young players, with veteran leaders Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo not being brought back, Zunino will be a good guy to have around.

In detailing Zunino's defensive prowess and preparation, Rays GM Erik Neander noted "how he navigates a staff, how he manages people, what kind of teammate he is, the care factor, the confidence that he is putting down the right fingers.''

"About as much as you could hope for in a younger catcher to provide in all those respects,'' Neander said. "He's somebody that we see that could take a leadership role with our group.''

Some of the words that followed Zunino out of Seattle were even stronger, including from the media.

Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish noted that Zunino was always accountable and "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.''

Mariners radio broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith tweeted that Zunino was "a total pro" and "there's no player I took more joy in watching succeed than Z.''

And the winner is …

Rays manager Kevin Cash is one of three finalists for the AL Manager of the Year award to be announced Tuesday, but likely won't win, with Oakland's Bob Melvin considered for the favorite and Boston's Alex Cora the other finalist. (PSA: Voting is done by BBWAA members at the end of the regular season.) LHP Blake Snell is one of three finalists for the AL Cy Young Award to be announced Wednesday and is considered a favorite, though not universally, to win, with Cleveland's Corey Kluber and Houston's Justin Verlander the other finalists.

Coaching ’em up

Interviews for the two open coaching positions are underway, with longtime Astros minor-league coach/manager Rodney Linares among a half-dozen or so external candidates. The openings are at third base coach and field coordinator, with the needs for a Spanish speaker and infield instructor. They also could hire two base coaches and move Ozzie Timmons, the assistant hitting coach, from first to the dugout.

Rays rumblings

Potential free-agent targets Nelson Cruz and Andrew McCutchen are getting expected interest elsewhere, maintaining the Rays' best chance that they don't get enough in long-term offers and are open to a one- or two-year deal. … Zunino will have to pick a new number, as he wore 3 in Seattle and the Rays plan to keep that closeted out of respect to Evan Longoria. … Jeremy Sowers, the former big-league pitcher, is moving to a front office role after three years handling the Rays replay reviews and advance scouting report work. … Snell, on Cash being a MOY finalist after getting a five-year contract extension: "His offseason started out pretty hot, hopefully it keeps going.'' … With a full 40-man roster, the Rays have busy days ahead in making moves to open space to add four-six prospects by the Nov. 20 deadline for Rule 5 draft protection. …

Now Twins manager Rocco Baldelli tweeted his thanks to the Rays and the Tampa Bay community: "You have given me the world. I've been supported and encouraged since the day I arrived. It's with great love that I say, THANK YOU. A great deal of me is now made up of you.'' … OF Jake Smolinski, who has big-league time with the A's and Rangers, signed a minor-league deal with a camp invite. … Interesting chatter out of Chicago on two ex-Rays, that Jim Hickey may be out after one year as Cubs pitching coach and there won't be any talks with manager Joe Maddon about an extension before the season, his last under contract. … Rays minor leaguers who became free agents include Ps Zach Lee, J.D. Martin and Jordan Harrison; OFs Jason Coats, Rob Refsnyder; INF Micah Johnson. … Spring home games on Feb. 28 (vs. Twins) and March 5 (vs. USF) will be night starts.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.