Zunino brings dual threat as Guardians' new catcher

December 15th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- The top two tasks on the Guardians' offseason checklist can now be crossed off.

Cleveland on Thursday signed free-agent catcher to a one-year deal. Terms of the contract were not announced, but a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand that it's for $6 million.

“He's renowned as a really good defensive catcher who does an extraordinary job of leading a pitching staff,” Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “We also think he has the ability to contribute offensively. As an All-Star in the 2021 season, he was a really productive offensive player and posted one of the best power rates in all of Major League Baseball.”

The Guardians had been rumored to be involved in trade discussions with the A's for backstop Sean Murphy. After Murphy was dealt to Atlanta on Monday afternoon, all eyes quickly turned toward Zunino, whom the club has been in contact with since about three weeks before the Winter Meetings, according to the catcher.

The biggest benefit of adding Zunino to Cleveland's lineup is his power. As an All-Star in 2021, he hit 33 homers with an .860 OPS -- offensive production this club has been missing from its catching position. Defensively, Zunino ranked in the 94th percentile in pitch framing in '21 and the 89th percentile in pop time, accumulating seven defensive runs saved.

But Zunino comes with a risk. The 31-year-old backstop missed nearly all of last season (playing 36 games) due to thoracic outlet syndrome that forced him to undergo surgery on his left (non-throwing) arm in July. The hope for the Guardians is that Zunino will be able to pick up where he left off in ’21, capable of bringing a little boom-or-bust to a lineup that hits for average and constantly finds ways to get on base.

“Only playing 30 games last year, I want to get the rest of my body up to speed with where I want to be, too,” Zunino said. “I've been symptom-free, gaining strength, mobility has been great. So I've been able to continue what would be a normal offseason for me.”

Zunino is hitting off a tee and throwing out to 100 feet multiple times a week. Antonetti explained that the plan will be to have Zunino ready for game action by early March.

Murphy could’ve made sense for the Guardians in a number of ways. He floated around 20 homers the last two seasons and had incredible defensive numbers in winning a Gold Glove Award in ’21. But because Murphy is only 28 years old and won't hit free agency until after the 2025 season, a one-year deal to Zunino could make a lot more sense for a team that's confident in up-and-coming catching prospect .

The Guardians have raved about Naylor for a long time. The compliments flooded in even more after the big league staff saw his work ethic firsthand during Spring Training this past year. Even after he was optioned to Triple-A, the Guardians kept Naylor in camp, continuing to give him experience and seeing what he had to offer. He got a taste of the big leagues in the final week of the regular season and absorbed as much of the experience as he could before being added to the postseason roster. But it was clear the front office was not ready to throw Naylor into the fire on Opening Day 2023.

“To be really clear,” Antonetti said, “we are excited about Bo Naylor's future and what we think he can continue to develop into.”

Naylor has played in five big league games. He's had only a half-season at Triple-A Columbus. The Guardians believe he’s going to be their starting catcher of the future, but it wasn’t time to give him that responsibility just yet. Signing a more veteran backstop to just a one-year deal can give Naylor a little more time to get some experience, and it gives him someone to learn from if he's the Guardians' backup catcher until the baton is passed to him.

Cleveland couldn’t have been more pleased with the foundation that was set by its young players in ’22. Now, the club is ready to build upon that for next year. A big switch-hitting bat like is already in the mix. The catching situation is all but worked out. From here, the Guardians can start to look to add to their starting pitching depth and bullpen if they’ve bought into the idea of going all-in for '23.

“I do think we’ve accomplished a few of our priorities heading into the offseason,” Antonetti said. “We’ll continue to assess opportunities as we go through the balance of the offseason to see if there are other ways in which we can improve the team.”