The plan going into last season was for Mike Zunino and Michael Perez to handle the catching duties. The Rays had to make a quick pivot when injuries struck early in the season. The Rays had to act fast, so they began looking for a low-priced acquisition off of the scrap heap, that somehow would end up being a solid contributor. It sounds ridiculous but “Ridiculous” is the Rays’ middle name (I made that up).
They turned to the Dodgers and found a recently released, injury-plagued catcher who had logged one AB in L.A. The Rays called over and the conversation probably went something like this:
Location – Los Angeles, CA, Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations and former Rays GM, Andrew Friedman’s secret underground lair/office.
(Phone Rings…or really it plays a digital song called a ringtone. Or, potentially it plays a digital sound that simulates the actual ring of a phone. A large percentage of people using phones have never actually heard the true ring of a phone leaving them with no idea as to why we call it a ringing phone…Where were we? Oh, the phone was ringing.)
LA President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman: Hello?
Rays GM, Erik Neander: Hello, Andrew? How are things in Los Angeles?
Friedman: Oh, Erik! It’s amazing here. Our Opening Day payroll was about the same as your gross revenue! You should really think about finding a big-market team so you can have a higher payroll and reach new heights – like I have.
Neander: You mean if I had a $200 million payroll, I could also lose to the Astros in the postseason?
Friedman: (Silence…) Did you need something, Erik?
Neander: Yes, I need a catcher.
Friedman: Well, great! We have four great prospects in our system. Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, plus two other guys in our top 20. These guys are real building blocks but they will come with a hefty price tag, so…
Neander: No, haha, I’ll stop you right there. I’m not prepared to give up anything of value for one of those catchers. Do you have anything cheaper? Look, I’ll take a first baseman if he can get up from the crouch. I just need a warm body.
Friedman: What are you willing to send us?
Neander: What can I get for $100,000?
Friedman: In Los Angeles!? That’s what I pay for my manicures! Are you being serious?
Neander: What about Travis d’Arnaud? With two veterans and four prospects, I’m not sure why you have him rostered. The guy has one at bat.
Neander: d’Arnaud…He’s a baseball player.
Friedman: Isn’t he on the Mets? (Flipping through papers) Oh, yes! He is on our roster, sure you can have him for $100,000. That will work for us, we need new urinal cakes in the restrooms around the stadium. That should cover some of the cost. Thanks, Erik!
d’Arnaud went from castaway to featured player for the 2019 Rays. He was the backbone behind the plate for a 96-win team. The Rays paid $100k to acquire him and yet, Zunino was still the highest-paid catcher out of the Rays’ pocketbook. While d’Arnaud was technically making a little more (around $5MM) than Zunino, the Mets were paying for about $3MM of that salary last year.
As for Zunino, he posted a negative WAR last season with a .165 AVG. He’s been in the league since 2013 and has almost twice as many strikeouts as he does hits. No defensive presence can make up for the hole he leaves on offense. Zunino is projected to receive nearly $5MM in arbitration. That would make him one of the highest paid players on the Rays again.