Mike Zunino’s run with the Seattle Mariners is officially over.
And leave it to Mariners’ general manager Jerry Dipoto to be the first to a big offseason trade.
The Mariners announced the trade Thursday morning that sends the six-year catcher, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and left-handed prospect Michael Plassmeyer to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley.
It comes a night after a source confirmed to The News Tribune that an agreement was in place and just the final details remained unfinished.
Thus ends an era with Zunino as the Mariners’ backstop — and era in which he showed flashes of why he was drafted No. 3 overall in 2012, but ultimately he never lived up to expectations after the previous Mariners’ regime called him up to the big leagues much too soon in 2013.
“I was shocked,” Zunino said Wednesday. “Obviously to see your name in trade talks, let alone this early in the offsesaon, was beyond my expectations.
“I had a conversation not eve a week ago with (Mariners manager Scott) Servais just to make sure we were talking about the offseason. When this popped up it was extremely surprising. It was one of those things when it got laid out, I know Jerry has a vision. And I just thank those guys for how they have treated me the past few years.”
What’s odd about this deal is that the Mariners briefly had Smith already. He was acquired and quickly traded to Tampa Bay in exchange for right-hander Drew Smyly, who never actually pitched a game for the Mariners after requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery in spring training just before the 2017 season.
So Smith was with the Mariners for a whole 77 minutes after he had just been acquired in a deal with the Braves.
Smith’s journey was one of the reasons Dipoto earned his “Trader Jerry” moniker. This would also be Dipoto’s 10th with the Rays since he took over before the 2016 season.
“Bringing Mallex back home to Seattle is exciting for us all,” Dipoto said (seemingly tongue-in-cheek) in a press release. “His combination of speed, base-running impact, defense and on-base abilities are unique in today’s game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come.”
On Wednesday night Zunino was announced as the Wilson defensive player of the year at catcher – an award recognizing the top defensive catcher in baseball, even though Zunino was not even a finalist for the American League’s Gold Glove at catcher this season.
He’s shown flashes of immense talent and was just about universally loved by his teammates in the clubhouse, but his future with the Mariners really became in doubt with his regression offensively this season after a solid season last year. He slashed .251/.331/.509 in 2017, and after two stints on the disabled list for an oblique strain and ankle injury he hit .201/.259/.410 this season.
For his career, Zunino has slashed .207/.276/.406 in over 2,000 at-bats. He made $2.975 million in 2018 and is projected to make $4 million in 2019.
“It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions,” Zunino said. “When you have a team that drafted you and spent so much time just helping you along in your career, you are extremely grateful for that. The Seattle fan base and the front office and everyone has treated me so well. It hasn’t quite set in yet that we won’t be returning, but at the same time it’s really exciting to see what the next chapter holds.”
And with the trade the lone catcher remaining on the Mariners’ 40-man roster is David Freitas.
Heredia had a strong start to the season and was the Mariners’ best defensive outfielder, but he finished the year batting .236/.318/.342. He was their fourth outfielder and often platooned with Denard Span (now a free agent) and Ben Gamel.
So who are the Mariners getting?
Smith batted .296/.367/.406 and stole 40 bases in his first full big-league season this year for the Rays. He’s 25 years old, a former fifth-round draft pick out of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida, and is under club control until 2023.
He fits the bill of 25-30 year-old players Dipoto said he wanted to stock up on. And he’s a fast, athletic outfielder who played predominately center field this past season, but also 47 games in right and 38 in left.
Fraley is a 23-year-old second-round draft pick in 2016 out of Louisiana State. He hit .347/.415/.547 with high Single-A Charlotte in 66 games in 2018.
The obvious conclusion this deal points to Dee Gordon moving back to second base if Smith plays center. And that means more first base and designated hitter time for Robinson Cano, who said after the final game of 2018 that he plans to be playing second next season.
And if Cano is playing DH, that means no Nelson Cruz, who is a free agent.
And if Zunino is the first to leave, then that certainly means the Mariners could be looking for ways to part with Gordon and/or Cano, too. There was a report earlier this week from Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports saying the Mariners are considering a “full-fledged teardown.”
Welcome to the hot stove league.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Rays?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Rays</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Mariners?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Mariners</a> nearing finishing line in deal that sends Mallex Smith to Sea for Guillermo Heredia/Mike Zunino. <a href="https://twitter.com/RyanDivish?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RyanDivish</a> 1st. TB wanted a RH-hit catch. Got streaky 1 with pop (45 HRs last 2 years), not much BA, but good defensive rep.</p>— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) <a href="https://twitter.com/Joelsherman1/status/1060368247462064129?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 8, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Source confirms <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Rays?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Rays</a> are in agreement with <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Mariners?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Mariners</a> on Zunino trade, pending a medical review. Per <a href="https://twitter.com/RyanDivish?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RyanDivish</a>, deal is Zunino and Guillermo Heredia to Rays for Mallex Smith. TB had acquired Smith from SEA as part of Drew Smyly trade in Jan. 2017.</p>— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) <a href="https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal/status/1060365570598555649?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 8, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sources: The Mariners are working to finish a trade that would send catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the Rays in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith. Deal could be finalized in the next day. <br><br> <a href="https://t.co/3WsH4b1z1r">https://t.co/3WsH4b1z1r</a> <a href="https://t.co/hr4msB88oJ">pic.twitter.com/hr4msB88oJ</a></p>— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) <a href="https://twitter.com/RyanDivish/status/1060355981475905537?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 8, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>