Mike Zunino won’t have to go far from his home in Gainesville, Fla., when the 2019 season begins.
After multiple sources confirmed a deal was in place on Wednesday evening, the Mariners announced a trade with their favorite trade partner, the Tampa Bay Rays, on Thursday morning.
Seattle sent Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and minor league left-handed pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and minor league outfielder Jake Fraley.
The two teams have been engaged in trade talks since last week. The framework of the deal came together Wednesday evening and the medical reports were cleared and players were notified before the trade was announced.
This is the 10th trade between the Mariners and Rays since general manager Jerry Dipoto began his tenure in Seattle.
“Bringing Mallex back home to Seattle is exciting for us all,” Dipoto said in a statement. “His combination of speed, baserunning 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. Jake Fraley exhibits a similarly exciting set of athletic and baseball skills. His offensive game blossomed in 2018 and creates an exciting profile when coupled with his exceptional defense and overall instincts. Both players fit our desire to build a younger, more athletic and exciting roster.”
Zunino found out about the rumors of trade via texts messages from friends and family.
“I was shocked,” Zunino said. “To see your name in trade talks, let alone this early in the offseason, was beyond my expectations.”
He had no inclination he could be traded this offseason.
“I had a conversation not even a week ago with (Scott) Servais, just laying out the offseason,” he said, “so when this popped up, it was extremely surprising. It’s one of those things where once everything got laid out, you sort of know Jerry’s got a vision. I just thank those guys on how they treated me over the last few years.”
Zunino, who picked up the award as the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year for catchers Wednesday afternoon, has been a brilliant defensive catcher for the Mariners at the big league level over five and a half seasons, playing in 575 games and logging more than 4,829 innings behind the plate.
His bat, however, didn’t display that sort of consistency. He struggled with swings and misses, striking out in 34 percent of his 2,087 plate appearances. This season, an oblique strain suffered a day before the season began, derailed what was a solid spring training. The injury bothered him for much of the season. He posted a .201/.259/.410 slash line with 18 doubles, 20 homers and 44 RBI in 113 games.
But there were periods, particularly the 2017 season where he hit .250 with 25 doubles, 25 homers and 64 RBI in 124 games, that gave the Mariners hope that he could be an All-Star level catcher and foundational piece for the organization.
“It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions for sure,” Zunino said. “When you have a team that’s drafted you and spent so much time helping you along in your career, you are extremely grateful for that. The Seattle fanbase, the front office and everyone there has treated me so well. It hasn’t quite set in that we won’t be returning there. But at the same time, it’s really exciting to see what the next chapter holds. I’m extremely excited to get to camp and just start the next part of my career.”
Taken with third overall pick of the 2012 draft out of the University of Florida, Zunino was rushed to the big leagues to his own detriment by the previous management regime, making his big league debut midway through the 2013 season after less than 100 minor league games. He predictably struggled to adjust to the advanced pitching of the big leagues. The Mariners later admitted that the premature promotion slowed his development significantly. They tried to rectify it with a handful of trips to Class AAA Tacoma to work on his swing.
Heredia has served as a fourth outfielder for the Mariners over the past three seasons, earning stretches of every day play due to injuries. He struggled at the plate with the increased playing time, posting a .236/.318/.342 slash line with 14 doubles, a triple, five homers and 19 RBI in 125 games. But he’s an exceptional defensive outfielder that will a need on the Rays roster.
Plassmeyer was a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft out of the University of Missouri. The lefty posted 2.25 ERA in 12 starts and one relief appearance in short-season Everett.
If you can sort through the myriad of Dipoto moves during his tenure, Smith was actually a Mariner for a total of 77 minutes in January of 2017. Seattle acquired him and reliever Shae Simmons from the Braves for pitchers Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows. Just over an hour later, Dipoto sent him and two minor leaguers — shortstop Carlos Vargas and left-handed pitcher Ryan Yarbrough to the Rays in exchange for lefty Drew Smyly.
“You know Dipoto didn’t guarantee me anything, but he said I’d at least have 78 minutes,” Smith said. “But we’ll see.”
With Smyly and Simmons no longer with the organization, the Mariners essentially have given up Gohara, Burrows, Vargas, Yarbrough, Zunino, Heredia, and Plassmeyer for Smith.
“It feels like they made a mistake and wanted me back and like they shouldn’t have let me go,” he said with a chuckle. “But, no, it feels good. The team wanted me enough to come get me again. I really appreciate that.”
He had a breakout season for the Rays, posting a .296/.367/.406 slash line with 27 doubles, 10 triples, two homers, 40 RBI and 40 stolen bases in 141 games. He can play all three outfield positions. If the Mariners decide to move Dee Gordon to the infield, Smith would be their every day center fielder. He appeared in 141 games, 127 starts (62-CF, 42-RF, 23-LF) despite missing 8 games on the disabled list (Aug. 25-Sept. 2) with a viral infection.
“It’s a business,” he said. “The Rays saw a trade that made sense for them and so did the Mariners. I’m not upset or shocked on that matter. Speaking on the season I had last year, I can’t do nothing but be thankful that I was on the Rays and was able to have the opportunity I did. For that, I’m very happy, but now I’m just excited about my new adventure with the Seattle Mariners.”
Smith moved into the leadoff spot with the Rays on Aug. 5 and hit .304 (52 for 171) with a .374 OBP and a .398 slugging percentage with nine doubles, two triples, a home run, 14 RBI and 18 steals in the final 41 games of the season.
Smith will make the league minimum in 2019 and then be arbitration eligible for three years. Zunino made $2.975 million in 2018 and is projected to make $4 million in 2019.
Fraley was second round pick in the 2016 draft, but struggled to adjust and dealt with injuries. In his second try at the High-A level in Charlotte, he posted a .347/.415/.547 slash line with 19 doubles, seven triples, four homers and 41 RBI in 66 games. He has quality speed and can play all three outfield spots.