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Rays turn to a familiar face in re-signing catcher Mike Zunino

After declining a $4.5 million option, the team works out a new deal to bring back the veteran backstop who worked so well with its pitchers.
In Mike Zunino, right, the Rays get a defense-oriented catcher who is familiar with their dynamic pitching staff and handled it well the previous two seasons, especially with his game-calling.
In Mike Zunino, right, the Rays get a defense-oriented catcher who is familiar with their dynamic pitching staff and handled it well the previous two seasons, especially with his game-calling. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — In deciding shortly after their World Series loss to decline a $4.5 million option on catcher Mike Zunino, the Rays said they would be open to further discussion. Zunino’s agent said the same.

This week, with neither side finding a better offer elsewhere, they agreed to get back together.

Zunino, 29, gets a one-year deal plus an option that guarantees him $3 million. That’s a $2 million salary for 2021 and a $1 million buyout on a 2022 option for $4 million-$7 million based on games played.

The Rays get a defense-oriented catcher who is familiar with their dynamic pitching staff and handled it well the previous two seasons, especially with his game-calling. Zunino gets an opportunity to play somewhat regularly based on his performance, though that will depend in part on what other catcher the team acquires.

Both sides will hope for an improved offensive showing. Zunino hit .161 with 13 homers, 42 RBIs and a .556 OPS in 118 games over two seasons, then .170 with four homers, eight RBIs and a .593 OPS in the 2020 postseason.

“‘Z’ has been instrumental to our team’s success over the last two years, most notably the work he’s done behind the plate and with our pitchers,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “We’re excited to have him back.”

The Rays will continue to look via trade and free agency for another catcher, having cleared out their 2020 crew after the season. Michael Perez was claimed on waivers by the Pirates, and Kevan Smith became a free agent. (The sides continue to stay in contact.)

Prospect Ronaldo Hernandez was the only catcher left on their 40-man roster. At 23 with no experience above the Class A level, he was not deemed ready for big-league duty.

An ideal fit would seem to be a catcher who is strong defensively, has some offensive upside and hits left-handed. One such candidate could be Tony Wolters, a 28-year-old who was non-tendered by the Rockies after hitting .238 over parts of five seasons.

Zunino played in only 28 games (25 starts) during the abbreviated 2020 season, missing nearly a month after straining his oblique in August, hitting .147 (11-for-75) with four home runs, 10 RBI and a .598 OPS. He struck out in 37 of 84 plate appearances (44 percent).

Zunino earned a historical notation when he hit four postseason home runs, including a key blast in the American League Championship Series Game 7 win. He was the first player, per STATS LLC, to hit under .150 during the regular season and go deep multiple times in the postseason. He fell one homer short of the record for most in a single postseason by a catcher. Sandy Alomar hit five for Cleveland in 1997.

Talking Wednesday before the Zunino deal was announced, manager Kevin Cash said the catching position is especially important to the Rays because of the premium the franchise puts on pitching.

“We do some pretty unique things pitching,” Cash said. “Some of it is very simple. Some of it’s unique where we really try to pull the pitcher’s strength out and really hit home on that, emphasize that. And then I think you look at just the overall stuff that our pitchers feature is really, really potent electric stuff and it takes some time for a catcher to be able to recognize and adjust.”

With the Rays, Zunino has the added benefit of playing near home. He lives in Gainesville with his wife and two young children during the offseason and still has family in the Cape Coral area where he grew up.

Details of the 2022 option for Zunino, represented by Tampa-based Jet Sports Management, are based on the number of games he plays regardless of role. He gets $4 million for fewer than 80 games, $5 million for 80-89, $6 million for 90-99 and $7 million for 100 or more. If Zunino is traded, the option automatically becomes $7 million.

The Rays also announced the signing of catcher Joe Odom to a minor-league contract with an invite to major-league spring training, plus previously reported deals with pitchers Andrew Kittredge and David Hess.

Odom, 28, made his debut in 2020 with the Mariners, and manager Scott Servais said he is “a fantastic game caller” who worked well with their young pitchers. He hit .128 with a .338 OPS in 18 games.

Kittredge, 30, has spent parts of the past four seasons with the Rays and rehabbed an August season-ending elbow injury. Hess, 27, spent parts of three seasons with the Orioles, going 4-20, 5.86 ERA.