PHOENIX, AZ – AUGUST 25: Mike Zunino #3 of the Seattle Mariners throws the ball back to the pitchers mound during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 25, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. All players across MLB will wear nicknames on their backs as well as colorful, non-traditional uniforms featuring alternate designs inspired by youth-league uniforms during Players Weekend. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Rays wasted little time answering two of their biggest questions this off-season.

One was how they were going to make room in their outfield for Austin Meadows next season. The other was who was going to be their primary catcher in 2019. Both of those have been answered by a trade with the Seattle Mariners that was reported Wednesday night. The Rays have acquired catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and left-handed pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer from the Mariners in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley.

Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish initially reported the deal was likely Wednesday evening:

Tampa Bay Rays Acquire Mike Zunino in Five-Player Trade with Seattle Mariners

It was obvious that the Rays were going to have to acquire a catcher. They entered the off-season with Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo as the only backstops on their 40-man roster. Those two have a combined 40 games of MLB experience. When reports began to surface earlier this week that the Mariners were contemplating a rebuild, fans wondered if Zunino could be of interest to the Rays as a right-handed hitting catcher to pair with Perez. Sure enough, the team moved quickly to get a deal done.

Zunino’s strengths are his power and defense. The same night the trade was reported, he was somewhat awkwardly named the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year at catcher. Zunino threw out 34.6% of attempted base-stealers in 2018 while recording 12 defensive runs saved (DRS) and committing just two errors. Offensively, he hit 20+ home runs for the second straight season but overall had a tough year. Zunino hit .201/.259/.410 with 20 home runs and 44 RBI in 113 games, good for an 84 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR. His 405 plate appearances were not enough to qualify him for the batting title, but his 37% strikeout rate would have been the highest among qualified hitters.

Those numbers are not far off from his career averages. Zunino debuted in 2013 after having been selected out of Florida by the Mariners with the third-overall pick of the 2012 draft. In 587 games with Seattle, Zunino was a .207/.276/.406 hitter (89 wRC+) with a 34.2% strikeout rate.

The Rays will be hoping he can rediscover his 2017 form when he hit .251/.331/.509 with 25 homers and 64 RBI in 124 games. That was good for a 124 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR, though he still struck out 36.8% of the time. The Rays will just have to live with the strikeouts, but they’ll be happy to do so if that Zunino shows up in Tampa Bay. Zunino will turn 28-years-old in March and will be eligible for free agency after the 2020 season.

Outfielder swap

Smith had a very nice season for the Rays. In 141 games he hit .296/.367/.406 (117 wRC+) and stole 40 bases. That performance was good for 3.4 fWAR, which ranked second among Rays position players behind Joey Wendle‘s 3.7. The 25-year-old also will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season, so he was a valuable piece for Tampa Bay.

However, the Rays still have Kevin Kiermaier and Tommy Pham, and they needed to make room for Meadows. Smith was expendable, and the Rays took a chance to sell high on him. Smith is also somewhat of a unique player in the modern game as someone who gets by with almost no power (he hit just two home runs in 544 plate appearances in 2018) and perhaps the Rays were not convinced he could continue to be an above-average hitter with his skill-set.

Heredia will likely serve as the fourth outfielder and give the Rays a right-handed hitting option to spell Kiermaier or Meadows against left-handed pitching. In 125 games this year he hit .236/.318/.342 with five home runs and 19 RBI, good for an 89 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR. Heredia, though, took a fairly interesting path to end up with a fairly uninteresting line. He was terrific in April (168 wRC+), May (131 wRC+) and September (225 wRC+), but the middle of the season was rough, with a 20 wRC+ in June, 63 wRC+ in July, and -13 wRC+ in August.

Like Zunino, Heredia’s 2018 numbers were pretty similar to his career totals. In 293 games over three seasons with the Mariners, he was a .244/.321/.336 hitter with 12 home runs and 55 RBI (86 wRC+). He turns 28-years-old in January, and like Smith will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season.

Prospects

The final aspect of this trade is the minor-league portion of it. Fraley, a seventh-round pick by the Rays in 2016, is a 23-year-old coming off of a nice season in High-A, where he hit .347/.415/.547 and stole 11 bases in 66 games. He hit just four home runs, and that line was propped up by a .407 BABIP.

Meanwhile, Plassmeyer is a 22-year-old who was a fourth-round pick by the Mariners this year. He was assigned to Short Season-A where he pitched in 13 games, 12 of which were starts. Plassmeyer posted a 2.25 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 0.93 FIP. He struck out 44 batters and walked just four in 24 innings.

It all comes down to Z

Several pieces ended up being involved in this trade. However, for the Rays, whether or not this deal works out for them will ultimately come down to whether or not Mike Zunino can successfully fill the hole behind the plate for a Tampa Bay team that is aiming for the postseason in 2019.

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