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Rays bank on Zunino's track record for 2020

Catcher signs one-year deal for $4.5M with club option for '21
@juanctoribio
November 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- With the catcher market starting to take shape, the Rays decided to work on a new deal with catcher Mike Zunino. After a disappointing season at the plate in 2019, Zunino became a possible candidate to be non-tendered before the Dec. 2 deadline, but instead the Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- With the catcher market starting to take shape, the Rays decided to work on a new deal with catcher Mike Zunino.

After a disappointing season at the plate in 2019, Zunino became a possible candidate to be non-tendered before the Dec. 2 deadline, but instead the Rays showed confidence in the veteran catcher, and they finalized a one-year deal for $4.5 million on Monday.

The deal includes a 2021 club option worth another $4.5 million, with the potential to grow to $5.25 million with incentives. That gives the Rays the ability to bank on Zunino having a bounce-back season at the plate, while also maintaining control for one more year if the 28-year-old shows consistent improvement with his bat.

“I think we were able to structure a deal that allows us to be on him a bit, and we believe in him to bounce back and have a really good season,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “If he does, we have the opportunity to have him here for a couple of years.”

Zunino hit just nine home runs in 90 games with the Rays, and his batting average dipped to .165. The .544 OPS was the second lowest of his career, behind the .530 clip in 2015 as a member of the Mariners.

Despite the offensive struggles, Zunino was still able to showcase his exit velocity, which is one of the areas that appealed to the Rays last offseason when they acquired the catcher from the Mariners. Zunino finished with an 88.4 average exit velocity, which was lower than the 89.5 clip in 2018 but a solid number nevertheless.

“We expect more out of him offensively than he demonstrated in 2019,” Neander said. “[The deal] is probably more driven by track record and what he’s demonstrated over time. The offensive part of the catcher position is not nearly as high as basically any other position, but I think more than anything, it’s his track record.”

The Rays also believe that having more familiarity with the pitching staff could help Zunino free up at the plate. Throughout the season, there were times when Zunino missed opportunities to hit on the field pregame to work through the game plan with the pitching staff.

“Last year, you come in and he’s learning teammates, you’re learning the staff, you’re learning Port Charlotte and everything is new,” Neander said. “This year, he can come back with that familiarity and with an offseason to get ready and know exactly where he’s going to be and what it’s going to look like, and for a lot of guys that can make a big difference.”

While most of the attention surrounded Zunino’s production at the plate, bringing back the catcher gives the Rays a veteran player who can still provide elite-level defense. Even in a down year, Zunino’s pop time finished in the 73rd percentile and his framing was good enough to land in the 61st percentile.

His presence behind the plate is also something that brings value to the Rays. Zunino knows the pitching staff, and they have raved about the leadership he brings.

With Zunino secured, it’s still likely that the Rays will look at the trade or free-agent market to improve at the position. Tampa Bay has Michael Perez on the roster, but he doesn’t have much Major League experience and could start the season in Triple-A Durham as a quality depth piece at the position.

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.