ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay addressed its catching situation Thursday by finalizing a trade for Mike Zunino in a multi-player deal with the Mariners.The Rays acquired Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and Minor League lefty Michael Plassmeyer in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and Minor League outfielder Jake Fraley."What you can
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay addressed its catching situation Thursday by finalizing a trade for Mike Zunino in a multi-player deal with the Mariners.
The Rays acquired Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and Minor League lefty Michael Plassmeyer in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and Minor League outfielder Jake Fraley.
"What you can do, for myself, is help develop the staff and be back there and give my best effort every day," Zunino said in a conference call Thursday. "To have that recognized and another team see that as an [asset], it's very exciting to bring that to an organization and help them win."
Tampa Bay has a history of catching problems. In recent years, the team has made trades for catchers Rene Rivera and Ryan Hanigan, but both were busts. It signed Wilson Ramos to a two-year deal when he was on the mend following knee surgery. Ramos made the American League All-Star team in 2018 and subsequently was traded to the Phillies.
"We had an idea of our needs, and catcher in particular was an acute one for us," Rays general manager Erik Neander said in a conference call. "We got the sense in the early going that [Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto] was open to talking about Mike. And we've had a variety of conversations over the last year, plus beyond that, with each of the players we're swapping in. I think a lot of the groundwork in terms of the interest level in the various players involved has been there, and just the specific needs for us."
Tampa Bay currently has two catchers on its 40-man roster: Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo. While the Rays like the abilities of both players, the pair has combined to play in just 40 Major League games. On top of that, both bat left-handed.
Zunino, 27, is a right-handed hitter. Playing in 113 games last season, he batted .201 with 20 home runs and 44 RBIs. His 1.7 defensive WAR ranked eighth among all American League position players, and he was honored Wednesday with the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award at catcher. Zunino put up those numbers despite twice going on the disabled list last season -- once each for a strained left oblique and a left ankle bone bruise.
"It's a position where I think historically, certainly in recent memory, defense has been really important to us," Neander said. "Mike's someone that defensively, across the board, checks every box that you're looking for.
"Offensively, he's somebody that possesses a lot of power. Profile-wise, you're gonna get power and a lot of it. You know you're gonna get strikeouts and a lot of it. … By and large, offensively, we're expecting to get what his identity has been."
Zunino made $2.975 million in 2018, and he's set to head into his second year of arbitration. He won't be eligible for free agency until after the '20 season.
Zunino joins an organization that has used analytics and unorthodox pitching strategies -- such as the deployment of an opener -- to gain an advantage on the mound. That requires a lot of flexibility and buy-in from the catchers, as well.
"The success they've had doing that speaks volumes to how innovative they are," Zunino said. "We know Tampa's done that for quite some time now. But I'm extremely excited to get to know their staff, to develop those relationships with those pitchers and really learn their thought process with [using an opener]. ... It's a little more cutting edge and new, and it will definitely be a learning curve for me."
Zunino hails from Cape Coral, Fla., roughly two hours south of St. Petersburg. He was the third-overall pick by Seattle in the 2012 Draft out of the University of Florida.
"You can't take away anything from the Rays last year -- when you look at this club and how young they are, competing in the AL East and winning 90 games, it's extremely exciting for me to come over here and hopefully be able to help this club any way I can and make some strides," Zunino said.
"It's definitely a mixed bag of emotions, for sure. When you have the team that drafted you and spent so much time helping you along in your career, you're extremely grateful for that. The Seattle fan base, the front office -- everyone has treated me so well. It hasn't quite settled in yet that we won't be returning there. But at the same time, it's really exciting to see what the next chapter holds."
Heredia served as the Mariners' fourth outfielder in 2018, hitting .236/.318/.342. He figures to fit into a similar role with the Rays, at least with their current roster construction, with Tommy Pham in left, Kevin Kiermaier in center and Austin Meadows being groomed for right.
"You're talking about somebody that by our evaluation is a top-of-the-line defender," Neander said of Heredia. "And it's not just based on pure footspeed. The instincts, the reads, the jumps, the arm, the awareness of how to navigate the outfield, we think is really special. And it's fun to watch."
Heredia has logged just over two years of service time, meaning he won't become arbitration-eligible until after next season, and he will remain under club control through the 2022 season.
Smith, who missed Super Two status this year, won't be eligible for arbitration until next offseason, and he won't become a free agent until after the 2022 season. Acquiring him helps Seattle shed payroll and address a specific need.
Plassmeyer, 22, went 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 13 appearances (12 starts) last season with Class A Short-Season Everett, his first professional season. He recorded 44 strikeouts, good for a 16.50 K/9 ratio, and was named to the Northwest League midseason All-Star team. He was selected by the Mariners in the fourth round of the 2018 Draft out of the University of Missouri.
"He made some interesting strides with his pitch development and velocity while at Missouri," Neander said. "We tracked him over the course of the summer -- not much of a workload over the summer, but we really like the ingredients, and we like the feel to pitch. ... We're hopeful he can be one of the guys we can look up in a couple of years and he's a part of our pitching group at hte Major League level."
Fraley, 23, hit .347/.415/.547 with four home runs and 41 RBIs in 66 games for Class A Advanced Charlotte last season. He missed two months of the season with a left foot injury. Over parts of three seasons in the Minors, he has hit .278/.359/.435 with seven home runs and 73 RBIs. He was selected by the Rays in the Competitive Balance Round B of the 2016 Draft out of Louisiana State University.
Tampa Bay and Seattle have often been trade partners, including a Jan. 11, 2017, deal that sent Smith to the Rays along with shortstop Carlos Vargas and lefty Ryan Yarbrough for lefty Drew Smyly. Smith never actually played for Seattle, as Atlanta had traded him to the Mariners earlier the same day the Rays acquired him. Smith had been a member of the M's for just 77 minutes.
The most recent deal between the two teams was May 25, when the Rays sent closer Alex Colome and veteran outfielder Denard Span to Seattle for Minor League right-hander Tommy Romero and righty Andrew Moore.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.