ST. PETERSBURG — This time, the Rays were happy to splurge on Mike Zunino.
Tampa Bay picked up a $7 million option Sunday on Zunino, making the All-Star catcher the second-highest paid player on the roster going into 2022.
It was a far different scenario from last offseason, when the Rays declined a $4.5 million option on Zunino, allowing him to test the waters in free agency. He eventually re-signed with the Rays for a $2 million base salary with a $1 million buyout on the 2022 option.
Zunino, 30, had a career year with 33 home runs and his first All-Star appearance in 2021. Zunino would have undoubtedly had a much different experience on the free-agent market this offseason but said he was grateful to remain in Tampa Bay after the uncertainty of last winter.
“Going through all of November last year, not hearing much, and just sort of seeing what feelers were out there in the beginning of December and trying to figure out what was going on — my first time really going through it — there’s a bit of uneasiness there,” Zunino said Sunday.
“Just to be able to get on the same page with the coaching staff, go from where I was, where I ended the season, to where I want to get before spring starts. Whether it’s my swing, whether it’s my body, it’s nice to have that comfort and have people that have had eyes on you.”
The Rays were always pleased with Zunino’s defense and management of the pitching staff since acquiring him from Seattle in the Mallex Smith trade exactly three years ago Monday.
But his offense had declined so much in 2019-20 — a .161 batting average with a combined 13 homers — that it was hard to justify the $4.5 million option last season.
Working with hitting coach Chad Mottola, Zunino finally found his comfort level in 2021. He averaged a home run every 10.09 at-bats, and his .559 slugging percentage was the second-highest in the last decade for a hitter who played at least 75 percent of his games at catcher.
Even with 2021′s success, Zunino said there is still room for improvement.
“I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in consistency, in areas that I believe I got better in as the year went on,” Zunino said. “I think I was able to cover some bases a little better towards the end of the year that I wasn’t doing the beginning of the year.
“I started using the whole field more, and I think that’s just a byproduct of trusting your mechanics and trusting your swing and being able to put an approach together. So I’m excited to go into the offseason to continue that. Not feeling like I have to tinker too drastically like I’ve had to do in many offseasons.”
Roster comings and goings
Along with picking up Zunino’s option, the Rays on Sunday designated left-handed pitcher Adam Conley for assignment. Signed as a free agent early in the 2021 season, Conley came up from Triple-A in mid-August and had a 2.29 ERA in 19 appearances. Working in both the rotation and relief with the Marlins the previous five seasons, Conley had compiled a 4.82 ERA in 414 innings.
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The Rays used Conley’s spot on the 40-man roster for catcher Rene Pinto, who was scheduled to become a minor league free agent on Sunday. Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2013, Pinto has methodically worked his way through Tampa Bay’s minor league system.
He had his strongest season yet in 2021, hitting a combined .274 with 20 homers while splitting the season between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham.
The Rays also made the procedurally required move of moving right-hander pitchers Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Thompson, and left-handers Colin Poche, Jeffrey Springs and Jalen Beeks from the 60-day injured list to the 40-man roster.
Rays in Gold Glove competition
Kevin Kiermaier missed out on a potential fourth Gold Glove award on Sunday night, losing the honor to Royals centerfielder Michael A. Taylor, a first-time winner.
Taylor led the majors in outs-above-average (15) and runs prevented (14) for centerfielders, according to MLB’s Statcast. Taylor also led in fangraphs.com’s defensive runs saved (19). Kiermaier, who was a finalist in centerfield along with Cleveland’s Myles Straw, was third in the AL in all four categories.
Rays third baseman Joey Wendle and leftfielder Randy Arozarena were also finalists at their positions. Oakland’s Matt Chapman won his third Gold Glove at third base and Kansas City’s Andrew Benintendi was a first-time winner in leftfield.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.