Around the Horn: Rays confident in Zunino

Strong defensive catcher eyes bounce-back season at plate

January 21st, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, is taking an in-depth look at the 2019 Rays, breaking the team down position-by-position. Next up: catchers.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Aside from an All-Star-caliber first half from last season, the catcher position has been a revolving door of sorts for the Rays. Because of that, acquiring a catcher was a top priority.

The Rays wasted no time addressing their need at the position, making a deal with Seattle on a five-player trade that brought Mike Zunino to the Rays on Nov. 8. While Tampa Bay is reportedly still in the mix on a possible trade for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, the club feels confident in what it has behind the plate heading into the 2019 season.

Around the Horn: RotationBullpen

Adding Zunino gives the Rays another right-handed-hitting option in the lineup, while young catchers Michael Perez and afford the club even more flexibility, as both backstops hit from the left side of the plate.

The starter: Zunino

Most of Zunino's value comes on defense, but the Rays are hoping to help the 27-year-old approach the offensive numbers he put up in 2017 as opposed to the down season he had in '18.

Despite his offensive struggles last season, Zunino's barrel rate was 13.8 percent, which was in the top six percent in the Majors, and his hard-hit percentage was a very good 44.9 percent. One area of concern for Zunino was the strikeout number. Over the last two seasons, Zunino has struck out at least 150 times. He has at least 130 strikeouts in four of his six years in the big leagues.

Zunino attributes some of last season's struggles to an oblique injury and a couple of other nagging health issues that he dealt with. The power numbers remained, as he finished with 20 home runs, but his .201/.259/.410 slash line took a significant hit from his breakout 2017 season.

In 2017, Zunino had his best offensive year, finishing with career highs in home runs (25), RBIs (64), batting average (.251), on-base percentage (.331) and OPS (.840). The Rays are hoping that the combination of being healthy, working with new hitting coaches and a change of philosophy can help Zunino get back to those numbers.

Defensively, Zunino is one of the best catchers in the league. According to FanGraphs, Zunino finished tied for first among American League catchers with 12 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018. He also finished the season with a .998 fielding percentage, which ranked fifth in the Majors among qualifying catchers. In addition, Zunino did an excellent job controlling the opposing team's running game, throwing out 29.2 percentage of potential basestealers.

Who wins the backup job?

Assuming that the Rays don't add Realmuto or anyone else before the Feb. 13 Spring Training report date, the backup job will be between Perez and Ciuffo, with Perez having the edge.

Perez was acquired from the D-backs on July 25, and he was immediately inserted onto the team's 25-man roster. Being an above-average defender was the reputation Perez had in the Arizona organization, and that carried over into the big leagues. While it was a small sample size, Perez showed an ability to call a good game and block pitches in the dirt. He also got a chance to show off his arm last season, throwing out 29 percent of potential basestealers. A hamstring injury in September limited him to just 24 games on the season, but the 26-year-old finished with a .284/.304/.392 slash line.

Ciuffo's 2018 season began with a 50-game suspension for failing a second drug test. It ended with the 23-year-old catcher making his Major League debut in September and playing in 16 games for the Rays. In the limited time, Ciuffo struggled at the plate, finishing with a .189/.262/.297 slash line. The 2013 first-round pick will get a chance to beat Perez out for the backup catcher spot, but he could be better served getting consistent playing time with Triple-A Durham.

Who else is in the Pipeline?

No. 7 Ronaldo Hernandez (Age: 21; Highest level: Class A Bowling Green)