Sep 13, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) is congratulated by starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (18) after hitting a solo home run off of St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Could Mike Zunino Put the Mariners in the Lead for David Price?

When the Seattle Mariners decided against including top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker in a potential trade for David Price, it seemed like their candidacy in the Price sweepstakes would be bleak until the moment they changed their minds. Little did we know that the Mariners had a replacement in mind. According to Jon Heyman, the Mariners are replacing Walker in the talks with catcher MIke Zunino, the number three overall pick in the draft from just last year. Could a package built around Zunino make the Mariners the frontrunners for Price once again?

Zunino, 22, made his major league debut in 2013 and it did not quite go as expected. Zunino hit to just a .214/.290/.329 line (78 OPS+) in 193 plate appearances, most notably striking out 49 times against 16 walks and failing to hit the ball with much authority. Defensively, Zunino looked better, but did throw out just 18% of attempted basestealers. Zunino is certainly talented enough to warrant many more chances, but after how poorly he performed, he will receive his share of criticism. One thing the Rays will notice, however, is how he was rushed to the major leagues by the Mariners out of necessity.

After Jesus Montero failed to meet expectations, the Mariners were left without a starting option at catcher. It is scary but true that former Ray Kelly Shoppach was likely their best option. Or at least that was the case unless the Mariners called up the highly-touted Zunino. The issue, however, was that Zunino clearly was not ready. He did have a .775 OPS at the time, but that number belied just a .227 batting average and a .297 on-base percentage. Zunino was hitting for power, but he struck out 66 times against 17 walks and his approach at the plate clearly was not big league ready. Zunino still had plenty of work to do as he learned to hit breaking pitches. Behind the plate, meanwhile, he had also thrown out just 26% of attempted basestealers, far below what we would expect from a receiver of his caliber. The Mariners hoped he would adjust, but the realistic best-case scenario was Zunino barely holding his own. You can’t blame the Mariners for bringing up Zunino because they simply had nowhere else to go, but it is hard to say that Zunino was not set up to fail.

When we bring up Zunino as a possible trade target for Rays, the first question that comes to mind has to be “where would Zunino fit in with all the other catchers the Rays have?” That question is not as big of a concern for the Rays as it would seem to be because they would likely start Zunino back at Triple-A and wait to bring him up until he is fully ready both at the plate and behind it. Unless the last year has drastically changed baseball’s perception of him, Zunino is a prospect and a very talented one at that. He may not be as promising as Walker, but he has plenty of potential and could be exactly the type of player the Rays are looking for in return for Price. The Mariners will have to construct a package around him, but if they are willing to part with Zunino, it may not be long before their talks for Price begin heating up.

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Tags: David Price Mike Zunino Tampa Bay Rays

  • phattitudes

    I assume the Rays would want to give Zunino the time to develop his skills in the minors. That could easily take a year or more. How does his 2013 MLB time and ABs affect his arbitration and free agency eligibility? Has the clock started or does it stop if he goes back to the minors?

    • Robbie_Knopf

      Zunino’s clock has started and there is nothing the Rays can do to reverse that process. The good news, though, is that Zunino was called up on June 12th, just six days before the Rays called up Wil Myers, and he was called up late enough to guarantee his team an extra year of control (through the end of the 2019 season). He barely made the cutoff, meaning that even a few games in 2014 will prevent him from being controlled through 2020, but as long as he remains in the big leagues to stay the next time he arrives, the Rays will have him for six years.

  • Jason Nereim

    While getting Walker would be great for the Rays, centering the deal around Zunino could give a potential package more depth. Maybe something along the lines of Zunino, Franklin/Miller, Paxton, and a lower level arm like Diaz or Sanchez.

    I assume Zunino would spend most of the year at AAA. He was clearly rushed to the majors and that showed with his K% and inability to make contact in and out of the zone, namely breaking pitches. Rays already have Hanigan and Molina to start the year, so there is no rush, barring an injury at least.

    Franklin/Miller could start the year at AAA or act as a super sub in the middle infield and probably the outfield. Rays could also pursue a trade involving Joyce and allowing Franklin/Miller to get regular ABs at 2B and Zobrist could join the DH/OF rotation.

    Paxton could compete with Odorizzi for a spot in the rotation and Diaz would add another impact arm to the pipeline.

    • Robbie_Knopf

      The Mariners don’t want to deal Paxton either. His age (25) and the fact that he is coming off a bad season at Triple-A lower his trade value, but the Mariners are still enamored with his stuff and think he could be a really good pitcher. They have included Paxton with Walker under the players they did not want to part with, and while they are more likely to change their stance on Paxton, he would only be dealt as the headliner with both Walker and Zunino staying put.

    • Joey

      Don’t forget about the dark horse in this entire scenario, Ken Morales!!! Look at the Rays history of player evaluation and you’ll see a crazy pattern. They always seem to get their guy. They’ve wanted Hannigan for years and they finally get him. They’ve had their eyes set on Morales for years and they just might be after him this entire time. He’s an idiot, btw, for not signing with the Rays after LAA. He was a perfect fit and cheap. This front office has some serious swagger to go along with their brilliance. Look back several years and you’ll notice they drafted Luke Scott and Ceasar Ramos, both of whom wouldn’t sign. What happens 5-8 years down the road. They get em’ via trade or FA.

      • Robbie_Knopf

        Would you really give up a first round pick to sign Morales?

        • Joey

          Judging by our recent track record of first rd picks….YES!!! But we will not be able to sign him because he’ll be asking for much more than 3m per year which seems to be our max offer for FA’s.