In an effort to reinforce the catching position for 2023, the Guardians have signed former Tampa Bay Ray backstop Mike Zunino to a 1-year, $6 million deal that was announced on Tuesday.
Zunino is a 32-year-old, veteran, power-hitting catcher with great defensive skills. He has hit 20 home runs or more in four of the five major league seasons in which he has played 100 games or more. Zunino’s career year to date was 2021 when he was an all-star for the Rays, hitting 33 home runs and slugging at a .559 clip.
Conversely, Zunino bucks the trend of most Guardians position players in that he is a huge swing & miss candidate (in a literal sense). He has struck out in more than 1/3 of his career at bats while walking at a below league average rate. So, while Zunino may pack a wallop when he makes contact, the frequency of contact can leave something to be desired.
On the defensive side, Zunino is one of the better catchers in the game. He was in the top 10 in 2021 in both catcher poptime (how long the ball takes to get to 2nd base on a steal) and catcher framing. He has also been at the helm of quality pitching staffs in Tampa under the tutelage of Cleveland’s former bullpen coach and Tampa Bay’s current manager, Kevin Cash.
In adding Zunino, the Guardians look to stick to their principles in leaning on a defense first catcher while also looking to improve on the abysmal offensive production they encountered at the position in 2022 between Austin Hedges and Luke Maile.
Unfortunately, 2022 wasn’t a bright spot for Zunino either. After slashing just .148/.195/.304 with five homers and a 37.4% K-rate in the early going, he was originally placed on the shelf by the Rays in mid-June due to shoulder inflammation in his non-throwing arm. His condition was ultimately diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome. The injury would bring his season to a close and it is yet to be seen how the ailment will affect Zunino’s future. Thoracic outlet syndrome has a track record of being a detriment to pitchers (Matt Harvey and Phil Hughes come to mind as victims) but less is known on how it will affect a catcher. Only one other catcher is known for having the syndrome and performing at a major league level after diagnosis, that being former journeyman catcher Jarrod Saltamacchia. Zunino can be perceived as a “boom or bust” candidate both because of his all or nothing approach at the plate and due to the conditions of his current health. He still needs to pass a physical with the Guardians before the deal becomes entirely official.
The move to sign Zunino comes in the aftermath of potential trade candidate and former Oakland Athletic Sean Murphy being traded to the Atlanta Braves in a three-team deal. Murphy would have also filled the Guardians void behind the plate as a strong defensive catcher with above average offensive chops. He was a younger and better-rounded offensive candidate than Zunino but was also under contract for three years and would have required the Guardians to part with a trade package that may have required major league talent in order to acquire him. He is projected to make about $3.5 million in arbitration in 2023 while the Guardians plan to pay Zunino $6 million for the same year.
The Guardians electing to sign Zunino rather than take part in a deal to trade for Murphy likely says a lot about how they feel about current prospect catcher Bo Naylor. Zunino’s one year deal allows Naylor to get the appropriate seasoning he needs either at AAA or alongside the Guardians new signee in the Majors. Naylor has only spent half a season in at AAA Columbus at this point, but the organization has gushed about him and did bring him up to the show at end of the season, even including him in the post-season roster. At the same time, the Guardians will need to find a backup catcher to place behind Zunino whether it be Naylor, fellow young catcher Bryan Lavastida, spring invitee Meibrys Viloria or someone else that is currently not with the organization. Hedges is a free agent (that could still return in a signing) and Maile was non-tendered and has signed with Cincinnati.
Zunino is Cleveland’s second free agent addition of the offseason, coming after last week’s signing of switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell to a two-year, $33 million contract. Both players can be perceived as upgrades to a Guardians offense that is looking to stick to its high contact rate roots while also adding power through all levels of the batting order.
You can find past highlights of Zunino’s work on the diamond right here at Cleveland Sports Talk.