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Did the Rays make the right calls on Travis d’Arnaud, Mike Zunino?

Rays Tales: A look at two of their biggest decisions thus far, plus who are all these ex-Rays managing, and rumblings.
If the Rays hadn't already committed to Mike Zunino (above), he would likely be just the kind of catcher they would be looking to as a replacement for Travis d'Arnaud. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
If the Rays hadn't already committed to Mike Zunino (above), he would likely be just the kind of catcher they would be looking to as a replacement for Travis d'Arnaud. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2019
Updated Nov. 29, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG – The Rays have made several interesting decisions in the last week, headlined by letting catcher Travis d’Arnaud go and then re-committing to keeping Mike Zunino.

As they move on to the next ones, such as whether to tender contracts from their shrinking list of arbitration eligibles to Chaz Roe (a projected $2.2 million) and outfielder Guillermo Heredia ($1.1 million) by Monday’s 8 p.m. deadline, let’s review if they were wrong or wise.

D’Arnaud

Wrong? D’Arnaud was, for the Rays anyway, the rare find of a two-way catcher, who also got raves for what he did in the clubhouse. They should have wanted to keep him and did, but clearly only to a point less than the $16 million over two years he got from the Braves. He not only filled the hole behind the plate capably but gave them a right-handed power bat they needed (and now do again), and came up clutch numerous times. His .263 average, 16 homers, 67 RBIs and .782 OPS, all in 92 games and after a slow start following his mid-May acquisition, was a huge part of their success, and an unexpected bonus when they got him during their mid-May injury mess for the bargain price of $100,000.

Wise? Was d’Arnaud the best catcher the Rays had seen, or did they see him at his best? He will be 31 in February. He has been injury prone, playing less than 110 games in five of his six seasons. He cooled considerably after a sizzling two months, whether pitchers adjusted, or he tired after having missed nearly all of 2018 recovering from surgery. After a sizzling 44-game stretch from May 27-Aug. 5, hitting .321 with 13 homers, 44 RBIs and a 1.025 OPS, he was just .232-3-23-.616 over his final 38 games, and .105-0-2-.323 in the playoffs. While the $8 million annual salary wasn’t crazy given the market, the overall $16 million commitment may have been too much given the Rays usual budget concerns and a squad of young players they’ll eventually have to pay.

Zunino

Wrong? There was good reason to instead ditch Zunino given a historically bad offensive season (.165, nine homers, 32 RBIs, .544 OPS) that cost him the starting job. And it’s not like he had been great offensively, with a career .202 average. Plus, because he was arbitration-eligible, he would still get a raise from his $4.4125 million salary. Even though the Rays got a relatively good deal, guaranteeing him only $4.5 million and getting a 2021 option (for no more than $5.25 million), that still would be tough to eat if he struggles again. And, this early in the off-season, there were other options.

Wise? If the Rays didn’t already have Zunino, he’d be kind of guy they’d be interested in getting — a 28-year-old elite defensive catcher coming off a down offensive year they think they can improve, and at a reasonable rate. Given the choice, they’ll always take the defense first behind the plate. And he did hit 20 homers in 2018 and 25 in 2017 (though playing in the AL West). With his $4.5 million salary they conceivably could add another veteran at a late off-season bargain price and still pay less than d’Arnaud’s salary. And if somehow they land a frontline catcher in a trade, Zunino could be easier to deal given the 2021 option.

The Rays way

With Derek Shelton getting his long-desired chance to manage in the majors by being hired in Pittsburgh, seven of the current 30 skippers either played, coached or managed for the Rays. Six, all but current Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, were together in the Rays organization in 2010. (Also of note, two former Rays execs run other teams: Andrew Friedman, Dodgers; Chaim Bloom, Red Sox.)

Here’s the breakdown, spread across all six divisions:

AL East: Kevin Cash, Rays; Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays

AL Central: Rocco Baldelli, Twins

AL West: Joe Maddon, Angels

NL East: Davey Martinez, Nationals

NL Central: Derek Shelton, Pirates

NL West: Gabe Kapler, Giants

Rays rumblings

With the arbitration eligibles list down from nine to six after ditching Matt Duffy and Jesus Aguilar (and re-signing Zunino), Roe will be an interesting decision considering his inconsistency and the new rule requiring relievers to face three batters. In 2019, 174 of the 229 he faced were right-handed, and 27 of his 71 outings were for two or one batters. Heredia is another. ... There is interest, and engagement, in bringing back free-agent outfielder Avisail Garcia, who is reportedly getting lots of calls. … The reward for getting to the division series was $36,835.59 a Ray. That’s what each of the 55 players, coaches and staff voted full shares got; the team also voted 13.766 partial shares and 11 cash awards. By comparison, a share for the World Series-winning Nats was $382,358.18. For what it’s worth, the Rays 55 full shares were third-fewest of the 10 playoff teams. … Radio man Dave Wills is among four nominees for Florida Sportscaster of the Year; that’s the award partner Andy Freed won in 2015. … Greg Brown, coach at NCAA Division II Nova Southeastern the last nine seasons, will be one of the new hitting minor-league hitting coordinators. … The Rays will be on ESPN on the first two Mondays of the season, March 30 vs. the Yankees and April 6 at the Red Sox. … One thought on the potential MLB-driven elimination of some minor-league affiliates: Does it hurt smaller-market teams such as the Rays that benefit from taking chances on developing lower-round and undrafted players such as Kevin Kiermaier and Mike Brosseau? … Shelton’s first regular-season game as Pirates manager will be, of all teams, against the Rays, at the Trop, March 26. … Area scout Rickey Drexler was named Scout of the Year by the Southeast Scouts Association after three of his signees made the majors: Ian Gibaut, Nate Lowe and Jake Fraley (after being traded to Seattle). Also, recently retired Rays minor-league coach Dick Bosman received the Career Recognition Award from the Mid-Atlantic Scouts Association. … A’s righty Tanner Anderson, a Plant High product, is spending the winter in USF St. Petersburg’s MBA program pursuing a degree in business analytics, per the school.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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