Rays exercise Zunino's $7 million option

November 7th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays will have plenty of challenging choices to make this offseason. Their first big decision, though, was an easy one.

As expected, Tampa Bay officially exercised catcher ’s $7 million club option for the 2022 season before Sunday’s deadline. That will make Zunino one of Tampa Bay’s highest-paid players next year, his fourth season with the club, but the Rays simply couldn’t turn away one of their most valuable and most important players after what he accomplished this past season.

The news didn’t come as a surprise, but Zunino and his wife, Alyssa, were no less thrilled to hear it confirmed on Sunday.

“I'm extremely excited. Alyssa and the rest of the family are extremely excited,” Zunino said during a Zoom call. “Without any long-term commitment, you sort of piece it year by year. But when you get to a place and just the whole atmosphere -- from the top to bottom, the openness, just the family aspect of it -- it's a no-brainer. Extremely happy that they decided to pick up this option and looking forward to being back for another year.”

This also provides Zunino with certainty he did not possess this time last year.

A year ago, the Rays declined Zunino’s $4.5 million club option and made him a free agent. But Zunino bet on himself and the relationships he established with Tampa Bay, re-signing with the Rays on a one-year, $2 million contract with a 2022 option worth between $4-7 million depending on his playing time. Zunino proved himself and maxed out his option-year salary during his first All-Star campaign, slashing .216/.301/.559 with a career-high 33 homers in 109 games while playing his usual brand of excellent defense.

“We brought him back last winter, talked about it being a winning recipe for us, and that was the belief. What he was able to do this year offensively, it's one of the reasons we won 100 games,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said Oct. 12. “That was a special year for him. I think it speaks to just the type of competitor he is, the drive that he has to get better. It would have been really easy for him to settle into a certain identity as a catcher that he really had with us prior. We saw some signs of it last fall, through the postseason, but just an incredible year for him.”

Zunino, 30, finished second on the Rays last season with 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs -- behind only Brandon Lowe (5.2 fWAR). Among all big league catchers, only Buster Posey (4.9 fWAR) and Will Smith (4.6) were more valuable. According to Statcast, Zunino produced six runs from the extra strikes he created behind the plate last season, the fifth-highest total in the Majors.

Zunino’s breakout season at the plate had a major impact on the Rays’ lineup, as he and fellow catcher Francisco Mejía added another layer of depth to the Majors’ second-highest scoring offense. Zunino finished second on the team in home runs, second in OPS and fifth in RBIs, consistently providing power that he credited to years of work with hitting coach Chad Mottola.

“As a player and a competitor, you always believe that that's in there. It just took a little bit longer to untap,” Zunino said. “That's part of the reason why I'm so grateful to be back. I think, when you look at from the top down, from Erik and the rest of the front office, just continuing to give me opportunities and their belief in that, and the unwavering effort that we've put in with Motor and some of the other coaches just to continue to build on this. It wasn't something that happened overnight. It took a long time. So it's one of those things where, to be able to have that little bit of extra time and trust to see something come to fruition was pretty cool.”

But the Rays felt Zunino's influence behind the plate more than anywhere else, as he guided a Tampa Bay pitching staff with the American League’s best ERA despite a seemingly endless streak of unexpected injuries.

Manager Kevin Cash and the Rays coaching staff relied on Zunino to help mentor Tampa Bay’s stable of inexperienced starters, including left-hander Shane McClanahan and right-hander Drew Rasmussen. And they trusted the veteran catcher to handle a staff that used 38 pitchers -- plus three position players on the mound -- throughout the season. All of them, from holdovers like Ryan Yarbrough to the wave of young arms who made their way to the Majors, sang Zunino’s praises.

The Rays will likely lean on more young starters next season -- including McClanahan, Rasmussen, Luis Patiño and Shane Baz -- while relying on the depth of their bullpen. Now, they can take comfort knowing they’ll have Zunino behind the plate once again.

“I think when you've experienced what we've gone through, making some playoff runs in the last three years and seeing guys grow -- whether it's players, staff members, just continuing to see how we have to get better -- it's cool to be part of a process for a long period of time,” Zunino said. “There's so many times in this game where you're here for just a year or so, so to be able to see something through for multiple years and hopefully try to continue to take the next step every year, it's fun to be a part of it.”