After being saluted as the best defensive catcher in the game, Mike Zunino gets traded. Dipoto says he’s not tearing down. But is he building up?
A good defensive catcher is a little like a good middle linebacker in football. Fortunately for the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner, they don’t ask him to play running back, even even if he volunteers.
But as with all MLB teams, the Mariners wanted points out of catcher Mike Zunino too. So much so that they shipped him to Tampa Bay Thursday, despite it being one day after he received national recognition as MLB’s best defensive catcher.
While timing is everything in many endeavors, the Mariners obviously don’t care. They have a playoff-absentee streak to extend.
In trading Zunino, LF Guillermo Heredia and lefty pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays for OF Mallex Smith and minor league OF Jake Fraley, the Mariners for 2019 appear to have a solid leadoff hitter and centerfielder, filling a void I didn’t think they had. They created a void at catcher, which I’m certain they have, because finding an MLB-ready catcher in the Seattle farm system is about as likely as finding a heart surgeon there.
The Mariners might go after a proven veteran in free agency, offering a one-year deal to one among Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado or Brian McCann, all 32 or older. So might other teams. If money is relatively equal, the best choices are going to teams with the best chances. That would not be the Mariners.
The Mariners, it would seem, are tearing down.
I see by the quizzical look on your face that you may have heard Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto say he wasn’t of a mind to tear down the roster “to the studs.” Which makes some sense. Except Zunino is a stud, more or less.
Yes, Mariners fans all understand that Zunino strikes out nearly as often as SNL’s Massive Headwound Harry at a sorority party. Yes, Zunino Mendoza-ed last season with .201 batting average. Yes, it’s been six years since he was taken with the third pick in the 2012 draft, during which time the Mariners have tried everything but exorcisms to fix his offense.
Still . . .
He’s only 27, and reportedly played many of his 113 games last season with lingering effects from an injury to his ribs on the day before the season opener. In 2017, he hit .251 with 25 homers and 64 RBIs. He’s a glue guy in the clubhouse, a generous giver of his time and he’s the best middle lineb . . . defensive catcher in the game, a feat even more impressive when it’s considered that in the past two seasons, he’s blocked countless one-hoppers from a dubious population of pitchers larger than Yakima. He does not have a body part that’s gone unbruised.
Yet he was traded. Dipoto tore out a stud, at least the Mariners’ definition of one. Which defines a tear-down.
Obviously it’s not what Dipoto will admit to, because it’s not what fans want to hear. Also not liking it is most of baseball, which experienced this season the full-force odiousness of the tank syndrome, in which teams with modest hopes of winning choose to go bad immediately in hopes of getting good later.
Eight of the 15 American League teams finished below .500 and five lost 95 or more. While it’s too early in the off-season to determine Dipoto’s clear intentions, the force could be strong in the Mariners to go to the dark side.
The problem, of course, is the Mariners have no place to put the players that are least productive per payroll dollar: Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager and even Robinson Cano are untradeable and virtually uncuttable. Nor is Dipoto likely to throw around large, long-term cash in free agency for a team that is far more than one or two players away.
At his post-season post-mortem after 89 often false-positive wins got him nowhere, Dipoto explained a little of his thinking.
“The likelihood of ever really truly considering a tear-it-down model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “Now that being said, there are a lot of alternatives to tear-downs. You know, when I look at tear-downs, it’s everybody get out, we’re starting over. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, because we just talked about so many positive elements of where our team is.
“There’s no reason for us to start from scratch. But we do need to reassess where this roster is, and take a look at not just 2019 but how we catch the teams that are in front of us. I don’t think the Astros, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Indians are going anywhere, and frankly the Tampa Rays and Oakland A’s just showed us that they’re real.”
In his first major transaction since those words, he seemed to travel a middle road, giving up Zunino, but getting back a 25-year-old outfielder (.296 BA, .733 OPS, 40 stolen bases in 141 games) who can play immediately.
Smith’s acquisition likely puts to an end to the Dee Gordon experiment in center field and returns him to his natural spot at second base. That sets up Cano to move to first base/DH, presuming that the Mariners will bring back neither DH Nelson Cruz nor 1B Ryon Healy, both free agents.
Of Smith, Dipoto said in a statement, “His combination of speed, base-running impact, defense and on-base abilities are unique in today’s game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come.”
Swapping full-time major leaguers in their mid-20s probably allows Dipoto to say he’s playing for 2019, as well as beyond. The problem, of course, is that the wash doesn’t move needle beyond 2018.
Meanwhile we eagerly await the return of former franchise catching stud Jesus Montero. A guy can dream, can’t he?