Rays re-commit to catcher Mike Zunino

With the veteran catcher coming off a rough 2019 season, Tampa Bay is banking on an offensive rebound.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino (10) smiles while talking taking his position behind home plate as he talks with players in the Seattle Mariners dugout moments before the first pitch at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino (10) smiles while talking taking his position behind home plate as he talks with players in the Seattle Mariners dugout moments before the first pitch at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 25, 2019|Updated Nov. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Once the Rays knew Travis d’Arnaud was leaving for bigger bucks in Atlanta, they decided their next-best option behind home plate was the one they already had.

So Monday, they finalized what essentially was a re-commitment to Mike Zunino, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year deal for $4.5 million that avoided a possibly costlier arbitration award, and the potential bonus of a 2021 team option for no more than $5.25 million.

In doing so, the Rays are banking heavily on an improved performance from Zunino, who was acquired from Seattle last offseason to be their primary catcher but lost his job due to a historically bad offensive performance, hitting just .165 with nine homers, 32 RBIs and a .544 OPS.

“We’re pretty committed to Mike here," Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “"We don’t expect a repeat of 2019. This deal came together because we believe Mike is capable of providing more offense than he did last year, his total defensive impact is as good as it gets, he’s a great teammate, and he wants to be here.''

Zunino, a Cape Coral native and University of Florida product who still lives in Gainesville, was “extremely excited” for the chance to show it, ideally back to his career-best 2017 form, when he hit .251 with 25 homers, 64 RBIs, an .840 OPS.

“Seeing what this team did last year, and seeing what they're capable of, being able to come back and help this team anyway I can is something I really wanted to be a part of," said Zunino, 29 in March.

“Obviously last year was disappointing for me performance wise. I know I'm better than that. It's been nice to get back to work and get an opportunity with the team now to show I'm better than I showed originally."

As the Rays tried unsuccessfully to retain d’Arnaud, who ended up getting $16 million over two years from the Braves, they were considering a wide range of options with Zunino. Given his projected $4.9 million arbitration salary, one presumably was cutting him loose at the Dec. 2 contact tender deadline.

“I obviously knew there was possibilities for just about anything," Zunino said. “It’s nature of the game."

Having already made some changes to his workout routine, Zunino has reached out to hitting coach Chad Mottola and will soon meet with him to start one-on-one sessions. They certainly have work to do, as Zunino’s .165 average was third lowest in the majors, and second worst in franchise history, for a player with 200 at-bats.

Defensively, though, he was among the best, third best in the majors with a 34.1 caught stealing percentage and third in the American League in the defensive runs saved metric with nine.

In turning back to Zunino, the Rays are likely — though, being the Rays, never absolutely — out of the market for a frontline catcher. They likely are still looking for a backup, or at least someone to compete for playing time, though Michael Perez again has the inside track for that job. Perez, like Zunino, was injured in May 2019 and missed extended time.

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“A year ago we felt good about that tandem going into the season," Neander said. “Obviously the 2019 season didn't play out the way that we expected with either player, but we do have a lot of belief in both and if that's ultimately where we end up opening day, we're okay providing them that opportunity.

“But at the same time there's a lot of winter left and we'll be on the lookout for any ways we could potentially improve our club either immediately or longer term."

Rays starter Blake Snell had mixed feelings on the moves.

He said losing d’Arnaud "sucks because he’s a special dude, he’s great to work with very smart and brought so much to our team. But he also was glad Zunino is staying, noting that he knows their pitchers, is "a stud behind the plate as well and he’s a good veteran presence.''

The 2021 option (with no buyout) was a key to the Zunino deal for the Rays, as they could have a bargain in what would otherwise would be his first year of free agency. His base salary is the same $4.5 million, with $250,000 increases for 300, 400 and 500 plate appearances, up to $5.25 million.