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For Rays, keeping Mike Zunino an ‘easy’ decision

The relatively hefty $7 million investment was made on the defense, leadership and other factors shown over past three years, not 2021 offense.
Catcher Mike Zunino had 33 home runs this past season, but his value goes far beyond his power at the plate, the Rays say.
Catcher Mike Zunino had 33 home runs this past season, but his value goes far beyond his power at the plate, the Rays say. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 9, 2021
Updated Nov. 9, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Catcher Mike Zunino will get a $7 million salary that likely will be one of the highest among the Rays and he isn’t expected, even by his boss, to repeat his career-best 33 home-run performance from this year.

Yet, for many reasons, the Rays said it was an obvious move to pick up Zunino’s 2022 option.

“This was an option that it was easy to pick up for all the things that we’ve appreciated about him and continue to appreciate about him,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said Monday night.

Much of the past three seasons, Neander said, that included “the defense, the leadership, just how important it is to have someone back there that touches the ball that many times a game and the influence they can have.

“To have someone like him and the trust and the confidence we have in him back there, that’s why we kept bringing him back.”

While Neander said the Rays expect there to be “some staying power” from the offensive improvements Zunino, 30, made in 2021, the option decision “wasn’t done expecting him to have a repeat offensive year.”

With the 33 homers, Zunino hit .216 overall, drove in 62 runs, struck out 132 times and had an .860 OPS overall, and was voted team MVP. Against lefties, he hit .342 with 16 homers and had a majors-best 1.287 OPS.

“That was a special year for him,” Neander said from the general managers meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. “And certainly, as has been the case in each year we’ve had Z, what we get on that side of the ball is really helpful. We’ll take it and we were certainly lucky to have it this year. But so much of this is about what he does in every other area of his game as well.”

While little with the Rays is ever set roster-wise, especially this early in the offseason, Neander made clear the decision to re-up with the 2021 All-Star, who otherwise would have become a free agent, was made with the intent of keeping him rather than trading him.

“When you get into these situations, the mindset to me is you’re doing this because you intend to have the player be a big part of next season,” Neander said. “It’s not 100 percent — I’m not trying to prepare anyone for anything — it’s just not 100. But you do it with that (mindset). ... Obviously, we had a big decision last year on Charlie (Morton, the pitcher whose $15 million option was declined), and it was the same mentality then — we would have never picked that up just to trade him. I don’t think that’s necessarily the spirit of how you want to do these things.”

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