A second consecutive subpar season has doomed catcher Mike Zunino to the free-agent market going into 2021. It’s hard to imagine a bounce-back campaign, but the veteran backstop is one of the younger options at the position. He should be an inexpensive choice for the right team.
Mike Zunino will turn 30-years-old before the 2021 season assuming it starts on time. He spent the last two seasons putting up very mediocre numbers with the Tampa Bay Rays. The two seasons were among the least productive of his career with a .161/233/323 slash line and 13 home runs, 135 strikeouts, and 26 walks in 373 plate appearances. That adds up to a 49 OPS+, which simply won’t do, even for an offensively-challenged position such as catcher. 2020 was an improvement over 2019, but it is hard to enjoy the last season too much with only 28 games.
That said, Mike Zunino does have very respectable career production. He is 12th in career FanGraphs WAR at 13.9 since entering the league in 2013. That places him above such known commodities as Willson Contreras and Gary Sanchez. His offense isn’t particularly notable, but his 46 defensive runs saved among catchers with at least 1000 innings is 10th best. He has also been outstanding at framing pitches with 61.1 runs framed since 2013. That is fifth and sandwiches the former Florida Gator between Russell Martin and Martin Maldonado over that span of time. Certainly, there is a market for such things, especially if Zunino can recapture some of what made him a more respectable bat with the Seattle Mariners.
Potential Landing Spots for Mike Zunino
St. Louis Cardinals
It is borderline impossible to imagine someone other than Yadier Molina behind the plate in St. Louis, but that might happen as soon as this spring. The future Hall of Famer is still unsigned and might interest more teams than just the Cards. If Molina does indeed have a new home in 2021, Zunino would be a solid option to split time with Andrew Knizner. Zunino’s defensive catching metrics are close enough to Molina’s that the skill behind the plate might not drop off too significantly. There is a concern that pitching could suffer without Molina’s intangibles, but there’s no great metric to determine that. Zunino would be much cheaper than Molina. It would also allow the team to play Knizner more often and groom Ivan Herrera for a larger role in the future.
At the very least, Zunino could back up Molina if St. Louis brings back their star veteran. The St. Louis Cardinals would either move Knizner to AAA-Memphis or carry three catchers depending on the size of rosters in 2021. It is very unlikely the Matt Wieters returns after two very uninspired campaigns.
The Philadelphia Phillies didn’t go anywhere with J.T. Realmuto behind the plate and now need to find a replacement after their qualifying offer was rejected. Philadelphia could certainly try to re-sign one of the market’s best options, but it’s unlikely they are willing to spend the necessary money that Realmuto would want. They could fall into the camp that many teams will and look for lower-cost replacements like Zunino.
The former Mariner and Ray looks like a fine complement to 29-year-old Andrew Knapp, who hit .278/404/444 in 89 plate appearances last year. Philadelphia could decline to offer Knapp arbitration, but that would be an extreme step. They have several promising, but very inexperienced prospects behind the plate. 21-year-old Rafael Marchan shouldn’t be pressed into heavy action despite a brief debut in 2020. His previous highest level was High-A. Zunino could be a brilliant supplementary piece next to Knapp as the youngsters develop.
San Francisco Giants
Buster Posey is the present and Joey Bart is the future, but there’s no reason Zunino can’t help be a bridge between the two in the Bay Area. Posey is 33-years-old, makes $22.2 million in 2021, and has only one year left on his current contract. Zunino can easily take the backup spot behind Posey. That would give the team a respectable substitute when the potential Hall of Famer needs a rest. A two or three-year deal is more than feasible if the San Francisco Giants wants to move on from Posey after next year, but not want to rely on a combination of Bart and Aramis Garcia.
New York Mets
It’s anyone’s guess what the New York Mets will do under new owner Steve Cohen, but there’s plenty of room to make a splash in the National League East. New York has a couple of viable options in the forms of Tomas Nido and Ali Sanchez. However, both are more valuable as receivers than hitters. Zunino has far more experience and two seasons of being a very good hitter.
The Mets are such a wild card when it comes to so many positions including catcher. They have one of the wealthiest and most enthusiastic owners in the game, but there are some interesting hurdles present right now. Signing someone like Realmuto would cede a draft pick to a division rival. Many of the other available catchers are also much older than Zunino and could break down at any point. Then there are major questions surrounding collective bargaining and if/when fans can attend games in 2021. Zunino is not the best catcher, but he is relatively young, has a solid history, and gives New York an interesting potential boost right away.
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