- Catcher Mike Zunino, whom the Rays acquired from the Mariners on Thursday, looks like a solid addition from an on-field standpoint. The Rays also place a great deal of value on Zunino as a person, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes, noting he should help fill the veteran leadership void left by free agents Sergio Romo and Carlos Gomez. Indeed, GM Erik Neander said that “[Zunino’s] somebody that we see that could take a leadership role with our group.’’ In terms of what Zunino provides as a defender, Neander offered a rave review, pointing to “how he navigates a staff, how he manages people, what kind of teammate he is, the care factor, the confidence that he is putting down the right fingers.”
The Mariners and Rays both crossed off an item on their offseason checklist Thursday, officially announcing a five-player trade that will send catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and minor league lefty Michael Plassmeyer from Seattle to Tampa in exchange for center fielder Mallex Smith and minor league outfielder Jake Fraley.
“Bringing Mallex back home to Seattle is exciting for us all,” said GM Jerry Dipoto in a tongue-in-cheek statement — a nod to having briefly acquired Smith in a previous trade. “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. 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.”
Unsurprisingly, the first significant swap of the 2018-19 offseason involves the ever-active Dipoto. As recently as Tuesday, the Seattle GM spoke of a desire to “re-imagine” the Mariners’ roster while striving to remain competitive. Specifically, he indicated to MLB.com’s Greg Johns that adding a center fielder would be a priority. Adding Smith not only achieves that goal early in the offseason but simultaneously lowers the club’s lofty payroll a bit; Zunino is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $4.2MM through arbitration this winter, while Smith is not yet arbitration-eligible after narrowly missing Super Two status and is controlled through the 2022 campaign.
This marks the second time in the past two years that Dipoto has acquired Smith, although the speedster’s original Mariners tenure was measured in minutes. Dipoto acquired Smith from the Braves in a deal that sent Luiz Gohara to Atlanta and promptly flipped Smith to Tampa Bay in order to acquire two years of Drew Smyly’s services. Unfortunately, Smyly injured his arm that Spring and ultimately required Tommy John surgery before ever throwing a regular-season pitch for the Mariners.
This time around, Smith’s acquisition seems to carry more permanence. He’s fresh off a season in which he hit .296/.367/.406 with a pair of homers, 27 doubles, an AL-leading 10 triples and a hefty 40 stolen bases. The 25-year-old Smith saw action at all three outfield positions with the Rays and delivered above-average ratings, but he’ll almost certainly slot in as the primary center fielder for manager Scott Servais in Seattle. He’ll give the Mariners a significant defensive upgrade over Dee Gordon, who admirably attempted to try his hand at a new position last season but graded out as one of the most ineffective defensive center fielders in the game. Gordon now appears likely to return to second base, if he isn’t traded himself, with Robinson Cano perhaps shifting to designated hitter and rotating between second base, first base and third base.
For the Rays, the addition of Zunino gives them a catcher with light-tower power and premium defensive skills. However, Zunino pairs those highly desirable traits with enormous strikeout tendencies and questionable on-base skills. He’s coming off a season in which he hit just .201/.251/.406 with 20 homers, but he’s also only a season removed from a vastly superior .251/.339/.509 output and a career-high 25 homers. Over the past three seasons, Zunino is a .223/.300/.462 hitter with with 57 home runs in 1032 plate appearances. The average and OBP might not jump out, but when adjusting for the Mariners’ pitcher-friendly home park, that level of production rates at about seven percent better than the league-average hitter and nearly 20 percent better than that of a league-average catcher (by measure of OPS and wRC+).
Defensively, Zunino threw out a career-best 35 percent of would-be base thieves in 2018, and he perennially ranks among the league’s best in terms of pitch framing. He’s received well above-average marks in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average for catchers in each of his Major League seasons, and he’s controllable for the next two seasons. If the Rays feel they can curb Zunino’s alarming 34.2 percent career strikeout rate, perhaps they believe there’s some yet-untapped upside in the 27-year-old. If not, he’ll nonetheless give them a strong throwing/framing backstop with more power than just about any catcher in the game.
Acquiring Zunino pushes Michael Perez, acquired in this summer’s Matt Andriese trade with the Diamondbacks, from a starting role to a backup job. The 26-year-old Perez impressed in his brief big league promotion in ’18, hitting .284/304/.392 with a homer and five doubles while halting five of 17 stolen-base attempts against him (29 percent). Perez has received quality defensive ratings of his own throughout his minor league tenure, so this pairing gives Tampa Bay a couple of solid to plus defenders behind the plate — a likely point of emphasis for lead baseball ops duo Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom as they engage in experimental tactics with their pitching staff.
As for Heredia, he’s not entirely dissimilar from Smith in that he’s a fleet-footed outfielder with minimal power who is capable of handling all three outfield positions. He’s not likely to crack a crowded Rays mix that could feature Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows as starters in the outfield. However, he could also give the Tampa Bay organization a nice bench option or upper-minors depth piece, as he does have multiple minor league options remaining.
Heredia, 28 in January, hit .236/.318/.342 with the Mariners in 337 plate appearances last season — numbers that fall right in line with his career .244/.321/.336 output in 870 PAs. Unlike Smith, he’s garnered poor defensive ratings in center field, though he grades out above-average in the outfield corners.
Plassmeyer, 22, was the Mariners’ fourth-round pick just five months ago in the 2018 draft, which aligns with Dipoto’s willingness to deal from his most recent draft classes. He traded catcher David Banuelos, his 2017 fifth-rounder, to the Twins last December and also flipped 2017 fourth-rounder Seth Elledge to the Cardinals this past summer. Plassmeyer, Mizzou product, posted a ridiculous 44-to-4 K/BB ratio through 24 innings in Short-Season Class-A ball this summer.
Fraley, 23, was Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2016 and is coming off a monstrous .347/.415/.547 showing in 2018, but those gaudy numbers came in 260 PAs against younger competition at Class-A Advanced.
While the addition of Smith fills one vacancy for the Mariners, it also creates another. Light-hitting journeyman David Freitas now sits atop the team’s depth chart behind the plate, so adding some catching options either via free agency or (more likely given Dipoto’s tendencies) via the trade market now figures to become an imperative in the months to come. As for the Rays, they’re dealing from a position of strength and also adding some additional depth by picking up Heredia, so this trade merely checks one item off a length to-do list early in the winter, thus freeing the Tampa Bay front offices to turn its focus to other areas of need (namely, the pitching staff).
Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reported that the two sides were close to a deal involving Zunino, Smith and Heredia. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal tweeted that an agreement was in place, while Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Greg Johns of MLB.com added some context on the return (Twitter links) before the inclusion of Plassmeyer and Fraley was also reported by Divish.
The Rays are in agreement with free-agent outfielder Jake Smolinski on a minor league contract, tweets Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com. The Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon client will presumably be in Major League camp with Tampa Bay come Spring Training.
Smolinski was outrighted by the Athletics and became a minor league free agent earlier this offseason. He’d have been eligible for a modest raise over last season’s $775K base salary on the heels of a pair of seasons in which he saw limited action. Smolinski’s 2018 campaign was cut short by a blood clot in his left calf, and in his 41 plate appearances he hit just .128/171/.205. The former second-round pick did post a terrific .278/.372/.548 slash in Triple-A this season and is a career .227/.287/.357 hitter in the Majors. The right-handed-hitting Smolinski has experience at all three outfield spots and has handled lefties well throughout his big league tenure, batting .282/.351/.473 through 276 trips to the plate.
Tampa Bay isn’t lacking for outfield depth with Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, Mallex Smith and Austin Meadows all on the 40-man roster, to say nothing of utility option like Brandon Lowe and Daniel Robertson. But Smolinski will vie for a bench role that’d allow the organization to take advantage of that success he’s enjoyed against lefties. If he doesn’t make the roster, he’ll likely head to Durham as an upper-level depth option to be called upon in the event of an injury.
What role will the White Sox play in this free agent market? It’s an open question whether the club will come away with any significant players, but it also seems increasingly likely that it will be heavily involved at all levels of the market. MLBTR did not pick the South Siders to land any of the top fifty free agents, but as noted in that post, the club could pursue quite a few of the players listed. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi even names the White Sox as potential pursuers of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic points out the case for the Sox to spend (subscription link), while Jon Heyman of Fancred tweets that the club is expressing an inclination to “take a step forward now.” Meanwhile, on the other side of town, indications remain that the Cubs will not spend a big chunk of change this winter, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post is the latest to report (Twitter link).
Clearly, the White Sox are an interesting team to watch. Even if it’s arguably a bit premature for significant investments, it certainly doesn’t hurt that they play in the sport’s worst overall division. Elsewhere …
- The competition in the AL West seems to be driving the Mariners to sell. It’s unclear as yet how deep the cuts will go, but talks are already opening up. The M’s are chatting with the Rays about catcher Mike Zunino, per Rosenthal (via Twitter). With two years of control remaining, the 27-year-old backstop presents an interesting alternative to the free agent market for catchers. He’s an inconsistent but high-powered offensive performer who is generally seen as a quality defender.
- The Cardinals and incumbent Red Sox are among the suitors for veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, according to Jon Morosi of MLB.com. Kimbrel is among the players who appear to be candidates to land earlier-than-usual contracts, by Morosi’s reckoning. (He mentions a few possible landing spots for others on his list, though it’s not apparent that the connections are based upon more than his analysis.)
- Certainly, it seems the motivation is there for the Cardinals to pursue significant players. As Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes, the St. Louis front office is looking hard at ways to improve. GM Mike Girsch says the team has a competitive roster as things stand, but wants to exit the offseason with “a division-leading roster.” The piece is full of worthwhile reading for Cards fans, particularly those interested in gaining some perspective on the team’s market positioning in relation to Harper and Machado. All told, it seems reasonable not to rule the Cards out as a possible pursuer of any free agent.
- Manny and Bryce are popular considerations for most teams, of course, even if they won’t realistically be pursued by all that many organizations. The Giants are perhaps a likelier suitor than may be evident from a passing glance, John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle writes. While the San Francisco organization struggled last year, has quite a few big contracts on the books, and doesn’t currently have a GM in place, Shea says that this kind of ownership-driven decision could still be pursued.
- Lost in the hype for those popular young free agents is the never-ending search for pitching. While the rotation was and is a strong suit for the Phillies, that doesn’t mean they can’t improve. Indeed, as Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes, it could make sense for the organization to use some trade assets to add a starter — in addition, of course, to pursuing a superstar position player on the open market. Salisbury tabs southpaws Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks and James Paxton of the Mariners as two particular names to watch.
- Likewise, as they consider their pitching options, the Yankees will look at the still-developing trade market. Per Heyman, via Twitter, the Yanks have at least some level of interest in the top arms that have newly entered the sphere of trade candidates. New York’s brass will meet with their counterparts with the Indians, who are dangling Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The Yankees are also said to have some interest in Paxton. Those three are among the game’s better starters, so it’s hardly surprising to hear the connections.
- It seems the Rays’ main offseason objective is to acquire a right-handed power hitter they can pencil into the middle of their order, suggests the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin, who names Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson and ex-Ray Wilson Ramos as free agents who would qualify. Topkin adds that it continues to appear as if Tampa Bay will move on without righty-swinging first baseman C.J. Cron, who belted 30 home runs in 2018. The Rays could trade Cron prior to the Nov. 30 non-tender deadline, Topkin observes. Even though Cron performed well this past season and will be affordable in 2019 (MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a $5.2MM salary), the Rays want a more “feared” hitter, according to Topkin.
- More from Topkin, who also lists a righty-hitting catcher, a reliever to replace free agent Sergio Romo and “possibly a starter” on the Rays’ offseason wish list. Topkin wonders if the Rays will pursue free-agent catcher Robinson Chirinos, whom the Rangers surprisingly cut ties with Friday. The 34-year-old already has one stint with the Rays under his belt, as they acquired him from the Cubs in a 2011 blockbuster which saw Matt Garza and Chris Archer, among others, change teams. Chirinos ultimately racked up just 60 PAs with the Rays, who dealt him to Texas in 2013. It was an unheralded move at the time, but Chirinos turned into a quality offensive backstop as a Ranger, posting a .768 OPS in 1,546 PAs with the club.
The Rays have outrighted right-hander Andrew Kittredge and lefty Vidal Nuno from their 40-man roster after both cleared waivers, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter links). The former was assigned to Triple-A while the latter has elected free agency.
Kittredge, 28, suffered mightily in the majors in 2018, getting torched for 33 earned runs in 38 1/3 innings. He fared much better at Triple-A, however, and has generally impressed of late in the upper minors. It seems reasonably likely he’ll get another shot at some point if a need arises.
As for Nuno, the 31-year-old was quite effective in his brief time in the majors, allowing just six earned runs in 33 innings over 17 appearances. He also had a solid showing in a starting role at Triple-A. While the Rays obviously did not want to commit to keeping him around, plenty of other teams will be glad to give him a look in camp in 2019.
The Rays have formally announced the signing of hard-throwing Cuban pitching prospect Sandy Gaston. The 16-year-old (17 in December) showcased for big league clubs at Marlins Park alongside Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr. in early October and, as of last week, was reported to be nearing a deal with the Tampa Bay organization. Jorge Ebro of El Nuevo Herald has previously reported that the would-be agreement was believed to include a hefty $2.6MM signing bonus. Slightly more specifically, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand tweets that the official bonus checks in at $2.61MM.
At last check, the Rays were reported to have about $3.5MM in their international bonus pool, meaning the signing of Gaston will account for the majority of their remaining resources. In return for their investment, the Rays will secure the rights to a young pitcher who ranked 16th among international prospects, per MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, and 24th on this year’s class in the eyes of Baseball America’s Ben Badler.
Already listed at 6’3″ and 205 pounds, Gaston’s greatest asset is a blazing fastball that routinely sits in the upper 90s and has reached 100 mph. His secondary offerings are said to lack consistency, as one might expect from a still-developing arm in his teens, and he’s still working to refine his command. Badler’s report on him notes that some scouts who’ve seen Gaston more recently have come away with the impression that his delivery is more under control, though he still notes that Gaston bears similarity to another flamethrowing teenager who has yet to pan out — former Marlins No. 2 overall draft pick Tyler Kolek. That’s not an indictment on Gaston’s future, of course, but rather a means of illustrating that there’s a fair bit of risk associated with Gaston despite his considerable upside.
The Rays have claimed right-hander Oliver Drake off waivers from the Twins, per an announcement from the Twins Additionally, Tampa Bay has outrighted catchers Jesus Sucre and Adam Moore off the 40-man roster, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter link). The Rays’ 40-man roster is now at 37 players, while the Twins’ is at 36.
The 31-year-old Drake looked as though he may have finally found a home with the Twins late in the 2018 season. Minnesota, incredibly, was the fifth Major League team for which the Naval Academy product suited up in 2018 and the only team with which he found real success. In 20 1/3 innings out of the Minnesota ’pen, Drake worked to a 2.21 ERA with an impressive 22-to-7 K/BB ratio and a 50 percent ground-ball rate.
Beyond the five teams with which he saw MLB action in 2018 (Twins, Blue Jays, Angels, Indians, Brewers), Drake came up with the Orioles back in 2016. In all, he’s seen time with six Major League clubs over the past two seasons. Tampa Bay, if Drake survives the offseason on the 40-man roster, would be a seventh. Drake is out of minor league options, so he’ll need to break camp with the Rays (or another club) next spring or else be exposed to waivers yet again. While his overall results in the big leagues aren’t impressive, the fact that six different teams have tried to pass him through waivers and all have failed speaks to the fact that many clubs believe him to be capable of succeeding in the Majors.
Sucre, 30, appeared in 73 games with the Rays this past season and hit .209/.247/.253 through 198 plate appearances — numbers not far off from his career rates through 654 PAs. With more than three years of big league service time, he has the right to reject an outright assignment in favor of free agency.
Moore, 34, went 4-for-18 in eight games with the Rays. He’s seen Major League action in parts of nine seasons and batted .199/.239/.312 in 312 plate appearances. The journeyman backstop has a lifetime .266/.325/.408 line in more than 2400 Triple-A plate appearances.
The Rays’ reputation for creative thinking is somewhat making the team a victim of its own success in 2018, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes. The Rays have already lost two members of their coaching staff to managerial jobs (Charlie Montoyo with the Blue Jays and Rocco Baldelli with the Twins), while senior VP Chaim Bloom was a finalist for the Mets’ GM job and has been mentioned as a possible candidate to run the Giants’ baseball operations department. For now, Tampa has two coaching vacancies to fill, though the responsibilities of Baldelli’s old infield coordinator role could be altered, as that job was specifically tailored for Baldelli’s skillset. Topkin wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one new coach from outside the organization hired, though the Rays do have a long track record of promoting from within the organization.
3:03pm: The Jays announced the hiring. Montoyo received a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth season.
1:53pm: The Blue Jays will hire Rays bench coach Charlie Montoyo as their new manager, reports Shi Davidi of Sportsnet (via Twitter). Montoyo will become the second member of the Rays’ staff to be hired away today, as the Twins named Tampa Bay Major League field coordinator Rocco Baldelli their new manager this morning.
Montoyo, 53, is a decorated minor league skipper who has spent a hefty 18 seasons managing in the Rays’ minor league ranks. He joined the big league coaching staff in December 2014, initially serving as the organization’s third base coach before being named Tom Foley’s successor as bench coach last offseason. His experience and the generally strong reputation the Rays’ staff has within the organization helped to make Montoyo a popular managerial candidate this offseason, as he also interviewed with the Reds and was linked to other vacancies as well.
Born in Puerto Rico, Montoyo was a sixth-round pick of the Brewers back in 1987 and had a 10-year playing career in the minors. He received the briefest of calls to the Majors with the 1993 Expos, appearing in four games and tallying just five trips to the plate. His playing career wrapped up in 1996, and he joined the Rays organization almost immediately thereafter, first being hired on Oct. 31 that year.
Montoyo is only three years younger than the man he’ll replace, John Gibbons, but he comes from a different background, having spent more than two decades with an organization that has often spearheaded experimental tactics and strategies. He’ll give the Blue Jays a bilingual skipper with considerable experience running a clubhouse (albeit at the minor league level) and a deep understanding of the increasing role that data plays not only in informing roster construction but also in the day-to-day performances and training regimens of a big league roster. It’s not yet clear what his hiring will mean for the remainder of the Blue Jays’ coaches, though it’s typical for newly hired skippers to bring in some of their own hires to round out their staffs.
The Jays are at a pivotal crossroads as an organization, as while they haven’t fully declared any intention to embark on a rebuild, they’re also faced with the reality that the core which brought them to the ALCS just a few years ago has faded away. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have departed. Josh Donaldson was traded in August, and Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar are suddenly just two years from free agency.
Given that level of turnover and a stacked division featuring a pair of 100-win teams and the 90-win Rays team from which Toronto is hiring Montoyo, it seems likely that a youth movement is on the horizon for the league’s lone north-of-the-border club. That likely made it all the more imperative for GM Ross Atkins and president Mark Shapiro to hand-pick a leader to develop a unified vision for the organization’s culture and direction moving forward.