This past season, the Mariners and Rays were separated by exactly one win in the standings. Of the two teams, the Mariners have the larger operating budget, and although the Mariners’ division includes the Astros, the Rays’ division includes the Red Sox and the Yankees. And yet these are two teams that seem to be going in different directions, with the Rays being the club on the rise. The Mariners will have to try desperately to stay afloat while getting next to no reinforcements from an empty farm system. The Rays are young and good and cost-controlled, and their farm is in the upper tier. The differing circumstances have led to a trade — an as-yet unofficial five-player swap, just the latest in a series of agreements between the two teams.
It’s an entertaining trade for all the stat nerds out there, on account of the various extremes. Zunino seldom hits the ball, but when he does, it goes a mile. Heredia and Smith hit the ball far more often, but when they do, it doesn’t go anywhere. Even Plassmeyer and Fraley are coming off eye-opening minor-league seasons. There’s something to dig into, for everybody. Plenty of numbers to be studied.
But the take-home: The Rays are trying to win, and they’ve addressed a position of need. The Mariners are apparently trying to reload, without losing too much, and they’re banking on 2018 results while adding a longer-term player. You can see an argument favoring either side of this, but I find the Rays’ to be more convincing.
The offseason is plenty young, but it’s obviously not too young for action to take place. This is the offseason where we’re presumably going to see a J.T. Realmuto trade, and this was also an offseason where the Rays would look to upgrade at catcher. I had the two linked in my head, with the Rays as a dark-horse suitor. It would’ve been an aggressive move, but also a statement move, for one of the very best players at his position. I have to think the Rays are now out of the hunt, if they were ever going to be serious at all. Zunino will be their regular backstop.
Zunino is going into his age-28 season, as a catcher with two more years of team control. Heredia is going into his age-28 season, as an outfielder with four more years of team control. Smith is going into his age-26 season, as an outfielder with four more years of team control. Plassmeyer’s a 22-year-old pitcher in the low minors. Fraley’s going to be a 24-year-old outfielder who finished last season at High-A.
For the Rays, primarily, they’ve done a couple things. They’ve added a regular catcher, and they’ve turned a versatile lefty-hitting outfielder into a versatile righty-hitting outfielder. For the Mariners, primarily, they’ve done one thing. If you figure the Mariners saw Heredia as a backup, then they’ve exchanged two years of a regular for four years of a regular. That’s an oversimplification, but that’s something the Mariners will have to do if they refuse to tear it all the way down. The Mariners will have to improve their service-time picture while trying not to get too much worse in the present.
What I’ll do is try to lay out the arguments here for either side. We can start with the argument that would say the Rays did better. What did the Rays end up with? Zunino is a premium defensive backstop who can hit the ball harder than just about anybody. There’s no question his game comes with a lot of swing-and-miss — arguably too much swing-and-miss. But a late-spring injury sent Zunino down the wrong path, and he still wound up with an 84 wRC+. You know what the league average was for catchers last season? An 84 wRC+. Even bad offensive Zunino was still passable offensive Zunino, and over the past three seasons, Zunino has been good for a wRC+ of 108. Mike Zunino strikes out a bunch, and he doesn’t walk as much as you’d like him to, but he’ll hit the ball 400 feet with some regularity, and he’s a weapon in the field. He’s always rated well as a pitch-framer, and pitchers have also enjoyed working with him. I’ll give Zunino some apparent leadership points as well, if that’s your thing. He does a lot of what catchers are supposed to do.
The Rays didn’t get Zunino for free, and Smith is an adequate regular who can play center field. He’s one of the most valuable players in either league on the bases, in large part owing to the fact that he runs like the dickens. Smith made some meaningful improvements in 2018, and he was, by our measurements, a 3+ win player. But in a lot of ways, looking underneath, Smith is similar to Heredia. And the thing I don’t quite trust about Smith is his 117 wRC+, because he has almost zero power, and he had a slightly below-average contact rate. That’s not a combination that frequently yields quality hitting. Smith’s three-year mark is 102. That feels like a more reasonable expectation.
To be clear, I do think Smith is better than Heredia. His track record is better. His baserunning is better. Heredia, however, makes more contact. He takes more pitches out of the zone. According to Statcast, Heredia’s three-year Outs Above Average figure is +17. Smith is at +5 in a similar number of innings. What Smith showed in 2018, and what Heredia didn’t show, is the ability to play on a regular basis. But you can see how this might not be a big downgrade. Heredia and Smith hit the ball with similar oomph. Heredia might be a more willing backup to Kevin Kiermaier, Tommy Pham, and Austin Meadows.
And just because I might as well include the two prospects — neither is a blue-chipper. Fraley, though, is thought to have fourth-outfielder skills, and he just had a .407 BABIP in the equivalent of a half-season. Plassmeyer threw just 24 innings in Low-A, but it’s funny what happens when you look at the minor-league leaderboards. I know this is silly, but bear with me. There were 3,825 minor-league pitchers who threw at least 20 innings, apparently. Plassmeyer ranked third — third — in strikeout rate, and second in K-BB%. He’s a southpaw with a good curveball, and a heater in the low-90s. A potential fast-mover, in whatever kind of role the Rays are stocking up on.
I think the Rays did well to get a catcher without a painful loss. But in the interest of fairness, I should present something of a counterargument. And the bulk of the counterargument would be this: In 2018, at least statistically, Mallex Smith was a more valuable baseball player than Mike Zunino was. Smith was worth 3.4 WAR as an outfielder. Zunino was worth 1.5 WAR as a catcher. I know those numbers come with certain error bars, but that’s a two-win gap. And the Mariners get Smith, who has twice as many remaining team-control years. What’s not to like? Better player, more control. That’s exactly the kind of trade the Mariners should hope to be making.
The Mariners might have become convinced that Zunino will never be an average hitter again. And while their catcher depth chart is now laughably bad, there are plenty of catchers available out there to serve as stopgaps, and Smith should be an outfield regular. It’s worth noting that, in 2018, Smith improved his average exit velocity while also improving his contact and strikeout rates. What if he improves again? What if he turns his speed into a greater number of defensive plays? Sure, Heredia looks good in the field, according to Statcast. But he doesn’t look as good according to DRS or UZR, and when Heredia’s been asked to play with greater frequency, he’s looked to be in over his head. Smith can play plenty. Heredia might only hope to be a poor man’s equivalent. No one mourns the loss of a fourth outfielder.
Smith could be a long-term asset. He’s a center fielder on a roster that didn’t have one. The Mariners now have more flexibility with Dee Gordon, and therefore Robinson Cano, and more dominoes are going to fall, because Jerry Dipoto’s in charge. And about those minor leaguers — Plassmeyer, who’s leaving, is a pitcher with good statistics. Fraley, who’s coming, is a hitter with good statistics. All else being equal, it’s generally smart to bet on the latter.
Maybe the point/counterpoint format is hard to follow. Maybe you feel like this didn’t end up anywhere, because now we’ve talked about virtually the entire range of possible outcomes. It’s absolutely true the Mariners could end up the winners of this trade. It’s absolutely true the Rays could end up the winners of this trade. It’s absolutely true both teams could be equally happy, and it’s absolutely true both teams could be equally sad. Nothing is certain when any of these transactions go down. After having looked at everything, however, I think probability favors Tampa Bay. You just have to consider more than only 2018. Zunino has been better before, and that matters. Smith has been worse before, and that matters, too. His skillset makes it hard to remain a good player. He’d have to be something of an exception.
Those are the gambles the Mariners might have to make, if they insist on trying to remain competitive while selling off players of value. The Mariners’ path isn’t impossible to navigate. The Rays are likely to have it much simpler. Their talent level now is only higher than it was. Mike Zunino might be just the player to help them return to the playoffs. As hitters, catchers don’t need to be great to be good. They don’t even need to be good to be great.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.