ST. PETERSBURG — Mike Zunino wasn’t sure if he would even be part of the Rays in 2021.
Though the organization greatly valued his handling of its dynamic pitching staff and defense behind the plate, it decided after two mostly disappointing seasons offensively to decline his $4.5 million option.
Both sides explored other alternatives before deciding six weeks later to get back together. Zunino took a pay cut, getting a guaranteed $3 million ($2 million salary, $1 million buyout on a 2022 option) to stay, valuing the chance to win and the comfort he had with the team and taking a swing he could play better.
You might say he hit a home run.
On the strength of his 31 homers and another strong year behind the plate, Zunino on Friday was named winner of the Don Zimmer Most Valuable Player Award, presented annually by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
“It’s an honor when you look at the talent on this club, the seasons guys are having, just to be in consideration for that,” Zunino said. “We’re a team that we push each other, we try to make each other better. So when you see guys doing that, it sort of sets the bar higher.
“For myself, building off the last year, just wanted to be able to help the team any way I could. Didn’t expect it to be something like this, but happy I can.”
Outfielder Randy Arozarena, who has had a solid first full season in the majors (.271 with 19 homers and 65 RBIs) after his remarkable 2020 postseason performance, was voted Outstanding Rookie.
Infielder Joey Wendle was chosen winner of the Paul C. Smith Champion Award, given to the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.
Zunino said it was “a no-brainer” for him to return to the Rays.
“When you talk about where this club’s going, the trajectory, they’re built to win for a long time,” he said. “Once you get a taste of what the playoffs are like, what the World Series is like, that becomes the main factor of why you want to go to a place.
“The other thing for me was the relationship that I had built with (hitting coach Chad Mottola and catching coach Paul Hoover), and all this coaching staff that I thought that could help me take the next step.
“I’m extremely grateful for (general manager Erik Neander) and the organization to put that trust in me for another year. I’m happy I was able to take a step in the right direction and turn some things around offensively.”
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