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Trade Talk

Mariners complete Zunino-Mallex deal

Seattle also ships Heredia, Minor Leaguer to Tampa Bay, acquires prospect Fraley
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

SEATTLE -- Mallex Smith believes in second chances, so he'll happily give Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto a pass on his first abbreviated stint with Seattle.

The 25-year-old outfielder noted that Dipoto jokingly told him he'd be part of the club "for longer than [77] minutes" after reacquiring the youngster, who the Mariners initially traded for two years ago before immediately flipping him to the Rays in the Drew Smyly deal.

SEATTLE -- Mallex Smith believes in second chances, so he'll happily give Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto a pass on his first abbreviated stint with Seattle.

The 25-year-old outfielder noted that Dipoto jokingly told him he'd be part of the club "for longer than [77] minutes" after reacquiring the youngster, who the Mariners initially traded for two years ago before immediately flipping him to the Rays in the Drew Smyly deal.

This time, the Mariners are bringing on Smith for keeps, as he's the centerpiece of a five-player swap that sent catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and Minor League left-hander Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays in exchange for Smith and Minor League outfielder Jake Fraley.

"It's like they made a mistake and wanted me back," Smith said in a Friday conference call from his offseason home in Tallahassee, Fla., after the trade became official. "They slipped up and let me go. It feels good. The team wanted me, and I really appreciate that."

The trade fills the Mariners' need for a center fielder and allows Dee Gordon to move back to the infield next season, where he appeared far more comfortable in 2018. But it does open the need for another move to fill the vacancy at catcher, with rookie backup David Freitas the only remaining backstop on Seattle's 40-man roster.

Dipoto: Free agency not 'first path' for Mariners

Thus this figures to just be the first domino for Dipoto in what shapes up as a busy offseason. But even the Mariners' GM took a lighthearted approach to landing a player whose previous tie to Seattle was measured in minutes.

"Bringing Mallex back home to Seattle is exciting for us all," Dipoto said. "His combination of speed, baserunning impact, defense and on-base abilities are unique in today's game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come."

Smith put up a .296/.367/.406 line with a league-leading 10 triples while also stealing 40 bases for the Rays in 141 games in his first season as a regular starter. He has one more year before reaching arbitration and won't become a free agent until 2023.

Dipoto is also intrigued by Fraley, a 23-year-old who posted a .347/.415/.547 line with four homers, 41 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 66 games for the Rays' Class A Advanced affiliate Charlotte last year and adds outfield depth to the Mariners' farm system.

"Jake Fraley exhibits a similarly exciting set of athletic and baseball skills," Dipoto said. "His offensive game blossomed in 2018 and creates an exciting profile when coupled with his exceptional defense and overall instincts. Both players fit our desire to build a younger, more athletic and exciting roster."

Giving up Zunino wasn't easy, however. The 27-year-old has been Seattle's starting backstop for most of the past five seasons after being selected with the third overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Florida.

Video: Zunino discusses joining Rays after trade

Zunino's offense took a dip last year as he posted a .201/.259/.410 line with 20 home runs and 44 RBIs in 113 games, but he was named the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday as MLB's top defensive catcher, and he's been one of the game's premier power hitters at his position the past two seasons.

Zunino admitted he was shocked by the deal, but he understood it once reality set in as he landed with a club close to his home in Gainesville, Fla.

"I had a conversation not even a week ago with [Mariners manager Scott] Servais just talking about the offseason and stuff like that," Zunino said. "So when this popped up, it was extremely surprising. But once everything got laid out, you know Jerry [Dipoto] has a vision, and I just thank those guys for how they treated me over the last few years."

Dipoto's plan figures to unfold with further moves, but Smith fills a clear void in center field. Gordon opened last season in center, though he shifted back to his natural second-base spot when Robinson Cano was suspended for 80 games. Gordon also filled in well at shortstop for seven games while Jean Segura was sidelined later in the year, so he could play either of those positions going forward.

"Our preference would be that Dee plays the infield, because that's what he does best," Dipoto told MLB.com on Thursday at the GM Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif.

For his part, Smith is eager to play with Gordon, a fellow Florida native who employs a similar speed game.

"Me and Dee have a good off-the-field relationship, so it will definitely be a pleasure to play with him and learn from him," Smith said. "He's still my elder and has done some things I haven't done in my career. I'll definitely learn from him."

Zunino has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent in 2021, and he made $2.975 million last season, with a raise expected to push his salary above $4 million next year.

Smith made the MLB minimum of $550,000 last year. With four years of team control before he'll reach free agency, he fits Dipoto's vision of building around the younger core of Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, Edwin Diaz and others who'll be with the club at least another four to five years.

Zunino was outstanding in the clubhouse and working with pitchers, but Smith is well respected as well and said his proudest accomplishment in his breakout season last year was being named the Rays' nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

"I feel like it's a good fit," Smith said. "It's very comfortable when the team wants you. Jerry has traded for me twice. I think I'll fit in well."

Heredia hit .236/.318/.342 in 125 games last year. The 27-year-old Cuban is a strong defender, but he struggled at the plate when given extensive playing time. Like Smith, he has one more season before reaching arbitration and four remaining years of club control.

Plasssmeyer, 22, had a 2.25 ERA in 24 innings over 13 games (12 starts) for Class A Short-Season Everett after being drafted in the fourth round by the Mariners in June.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners, Mallex Smith, Mike Zunino