Scouting The Mike Zunino-Mallex Smith Deal

Image credit: Mike Zunino (Photo by Tom DiPace)

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan first reported on Tuesday that the Mariners were considering rebuilding after the club fell just short of the playoffs for the third time in five years. Seattle has won 86, 87 and 89 games in those seasons, but failed to snap a now 17-year playoff drought, the longest in baseball.

With Nelson Cruz now a free agent and lineup cornerstones Robinson CanoKyle Seager and Dee Gordon all on the wrong side of 30, the Mariners made the first of what may be many offseason moves with a trade that sends catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the Rays in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith. The teams also exchanged a pair of prospects in the deal.

The deal is not yet official, but Baseball America correspondent and Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin has laid out all the pieces of the deal.

In Smith, the Mariners added a speedy outfielder, who, despite coming off a career year, appeared to be squeezed out in Tampa Bay. The Rays already have Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for Smith. By swapping Heredia for Smith, the Rays’ outfield picture got a little less lefthanded as well. Heredia fits a more traditional backup outfielder profile as well, adding to the reasoning for the deal.

Smith got his first full season of action in 2018, and posted 3.5 wins above replacement, as measured by Baseball Reference. His 10 triples led the American League, and his 12 times caught stealing tied for the league lead with Texas’ Rougned Odor and his new teammate Dee Gordon. Clearly Smith has speed to burn, but needs to hone his instincts a bit more to make that tool even more of a weapon.

Zunino gives the Rays an established but controllable big league catcher to a team that had no catchers on the 40-man roster who project as regulars (Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo are both seen as potential backups). It will also add a bit more punch to a lineup that finished 27th in home runs in 2018.

For the Mariners, this is likely the first step in a significant rebuild. Adding Smith to a team that already has Dee Gordon and Jean Segura means the Mariners now have three players on their roster who have swiped 40 or more bases in a season. While the game is a very power-oriented one these days, the Mariners are finding value in having speedsters.

Mariners Acquire

Mallex Smith, OF (MLB)
Age: 25

Smith is one of the speediest players in the game, and showed a blossoming skill set in his first everyday action. His .296 average was second on the Rays to Joey Wendle, and his .367 on-base percentage placed him behind only Daniel Robertson. His 3.5 WAR was also the second-best on the team, behind Wendle. Smith had not hit nearly as well in his first season with the Rays or his rookie year with the Braves, so he will need to show that his 2018 improvement is sustainable. He’s a speedster who plays to his strengths–he has near bottom-of-the-scale power, but can use his legs to turn balls in the gaps (usually the opposite-field gap) into doubles and triples.

Jake Fraley, OF (High Class A)
Age: 23

Fraley has impressed when he’s gotten on the field, but he’s struggled to stay healthy as a pro. He missed almost all of the 2017 season with two separate stints on the disabled list–the most serious was a knee injury that sidelined him for the final three months of that season. He bounced back by having an excellent Australian Baseball League season last winter. After yet another DL stint to start 2018, this time because of a left foot injury, Fraley hit .347/.415/.547 in a return to high Class A Charlotte. Fraley is a plus runner and a true center fielder with above-average to plus range. His fringe-average arm is stressed in right field, but as a lefthanded hitter who puts the bat on the ball and draws walks, he has a pretty solid fourth outfielder floor. Like many lefty bats, he’s much better against righthanders than lefties. If he can prove he has fixed his durability issues, he could be ready for the big leagues by 2020.


Rays Acquire

Mike Zunino, C (MLB)
Age: 27

Zunino brings two things to the table: Power and defense. His 35 percent rate of catching basestealers was 7 percent better than league average, and he was one of just six catchers with 20 or more home runs in 2018. StatCorner rated him as an above-average pitch framer who can snag some extra strikes with his work around the edges of the plate. He’s an immediate upgrade over the two catchers currently on the Rays’ 40-man roster, Perez and Ciuffo, and has long been lauded for the way handles pitching staffs.

Guillermo Heredia, OF (MLB)
Age: 27

With Meadows, Pham and Kiermaier in line as the starters in Tampa Bay, Heredia’s role is likely to be as more of a fourth outfielder who can break up a line of lefties every so often. He sported an average exit velocity of 83.9 miles per hour in 2018, which ranked him among the bottom tier of major leaguers. Among Mariners, only Gordon had a lower average exit velo. Heredia doesn’t really have the skills to start, and with a wide array of versatile infielder/outfielders coming up through the Rays system, he may have to work to beat out players like Andrew Velasquez (who can play center field and both middle infield spots).

Michael Plassmeyer, LHP
Age: 22

Selected in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, Plassmeyer got just 24 innings under his belt—all with short-season Everett—before being traded. He threw a career-high 91 innings at Missouri before going pro, so the Mariners were cautious with his workload. He commands a four-pitch arsenal and with Everett put together an excellent 44-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He throws his fastball in the low 90s but has touched as high as 95 in short bursts. His curveball is his best offspeed pitch, and he backs it up with an average slider and changeup he’s beginning to get a feel for throwing. He could fit in toward the back of a rotation if he reaches his ceiling.

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