Zunino on pace to play in Guardians' Spring opener
Cleveland eyeing several potential backup candidates for the veteran backstop
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- If there was any concern that Mike Zunino was going to be behind physically entering Spring Training, he’s already proven in the first week that he’s well on the road to recovery.
Zunino missed most of last season due to thoracic outlet syndrome in his left (non-throwing) arm. He underwent surgery for it in July and was signed by the Guardians over the offseason with the expectation that he’ll be without restrictions by the time camp began. Now, he’s on pace to start for the Guardians in their first Cactus League game on Feb. 25 against the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.
“[He] won’t [play in] big chunks right away,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “We don’t do that with anybody. But I think he’s doing pretty well. So, I mean, if he’s playing in the first game, that speaks volumes.”
Zunino being healthy is the biggest piece of Cleveland's catching puzzle. The ideal scenario for the Guardians would be having Zunino take the bulk of the innings and have a non-roster backstop or Bryan Lavastida handle the backup role at the beginning of the season. It seems the preference is to have Bo Naylor begin the year in Triple-A, play consistently and get more reps under his belt before he’s inevitably backing up Zunino (and potentially getting more playing time by the end of the season).
If Zunino wasn’t in the clear to be ready health-wise on Opening Day, the Guardians may not have had another option but to throw Naylor into the fire out of the gate, which isn’t how the club wants him to transition to the big leagues. Now, he can represent Canada in the World Baseball Classic and focus on improving in Triple-A before his next call to the Majors comes.
“He’s 22 years old,” Francona said. “We make a promise to our guys that we’ll be honest and we’ll be conscientious in where we feel they are and what the plan is for him, but don’t waste being young worrying about where you’re going to be. Just enjoy seeing how good you can get.
“We told him it’s not always on your timetable. We own up to that. But if you knock the door down, that sort of makes the timetable. But I think he’s got a really good head situated really well. He’s got a pretty good outlook.”
If the Opening Day roster doesn’t include Naylor, who will be the backup catcher? Let’s take a look at the options as workouts begin ramping up at camp:
Lavastida would be the easiest move considering he’s the only other backstop already on the 40-man roster, which is currently at its max. But would Cleveland be ready to get him back in the mix after a difficult 2022 season? Previously, he had been solid offensively, hitting .289 with an .836 OPS across three Minor League levels in ’21. Aside from the six games in the big leagues last year, he spent the season split between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, hitting a combined .209 with a .633 OPS while battling some injuries.
Viloria ranked in the 79th percentile in pop time in 2022 and his framing improved from past seasons, according to Statcast. In four years in the big leagues, he’s hit .201 with a .553 OPS in 93 games. Viloria is participating in the World Baseball Classic for Colombia, which means he’ll miss a chunk of Spring Training with Cleveland -- valuable time for the club to make a decision.
Steamer predicts Gallagher and Viloria to have similar numbers in 2023, with Gallagher at a .216 average and 72 wRC+. His pop time might not be as quick as Viloria, but he’s put together decent defensive seasons in the past, according to his metrics.
The most intriguing part about Fry is his versatility. He can play the outfield or either corner infield spot when he’s not behind the plate. He’s even seen innings in the middle infield, as well. If he has an impressive spring, maybe Cleveland will take a chance on him, despite his having no Major League experience.
During Collins' time in the Minors, MLB Pipeline praised him more for power than his defense. But in a handful of appearances in the Majors over the last four years, he’s combined to hit just .185 with a .622 OPS. But like Gallagher or Viloria, Collins could be just enough to bridge the gap to Naylor before likely getting designated for assignment.