BY Art Thiel 05:45PM 11/08/2018

Thiel: Mariners tear out a stud, sorta, in Zunino

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?

Too many times, Mike Zunino’s offense looked like this. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

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?


  • Talkjoc

    Another reason to look forward to college football in the summer of 2019. Dan Wilson is available is he not🤔

    • Husky73

      Skip Jutze would be an upgrade.

  • Alan Harrison

    Oh, now, I don’t think this is a bad deal. In fact, it’s a pretty good one. Everyone is aware that catchers that hit and field are a rarity, but Zunino’s 2018 matched the baseball card, not 2017. In this ballpark, with these coaches, and this environment, Z will never improve his hitting. If he can eliminate being an automatic strikeout in the ugly confines of St. Petersburg, living close to home and batting more often in Yankee Stadium, Fenway, and other hitter-friendly parks, good for him (and shame on our coaching). The X-Kid is an exciting player that actually takes walks – a much stronger leadoff hitter than Dee, and Haniger can move back down the order where he’ll be more effective for the team. If Zunino were a “stud,” then the house was pretty rotten and rickety with no foundation. Maybe it still is. But if they can make that Paxton and Seager and $$ for Kelly/Knizner and 3-4 AA or AAA prospects from the Cardinals (who desperately need a 3B), we’ll be fine in the long run.

    • Talkjoc

      Doesn’t matter on what ballpark he’s in, you need to make contact. His value is behind the dish.

  • bevdog

    1) We are stuck with Hernandez, Cano and Seager. They are all paid too much and are under performers. Felix is over the hill, Cano will do a Brett Boone (no more juice taking) and will only hit 15 homers instead of 30, Seager will not adjust to the shift and has never hit close to .300. 27 million, 24 million and 18 million equals 69 million for these 3 players. Get rid of them and and pick up some pitching.
    2) In order to win and make the playoffs they must focus on acquiring 3 or more STUDS for their starting pitching staff not guys that are good at “eating up innings” (See teams in MLB playoffs.) Keep Paxton as he is a STUD.
    3) You acquire hitters that have low strikeout rates, high on base percentages that walk, put the ball in play and hit at least 15 homes a season.
    4) The 3 outfield positions must produce at least a total of 45 home runs at a minimum. Remember Griffey and Buhner hitting over 80 plus home runs in one year combined and making the playoffs? Playing 3 players Gamel, Smith and Gordon will produce, give or take, 15 total home runs. Not good enough and a losing formula in this day and age of pitching and homers proving to be the ticket to winning and success.
    A big shout out to Jack Z for burying the Mariners and sticking them with a 10 year 24 million contract to Cano. Ouch!
    Sadly, we are doomed again before the season even starts of making the playoffs.

    • Husky73

      1. Felix, Cano and Seager are basically untradeable. No one wants them. 2. Paxton is the ONE player (other than Diaz) on the Mariners that teams will want— thus, he is the chip in which the M’s can get 3 or 4 for one. For teams REALLY wanting Paxton, maybe Felix or Cano can be packaged in the trade. 3-4. Haniger is their best outfielder (unless he is traded), and the newly acquired Smith will be in one of the other two outfield positions. Trading Paxton (who is injured annually, has never started 30 games and has never pitched more than 160 innings) may be a way to acquire a power hitting outfielder and possibly a young pitcher or two.

  • Well, Dipoto is not the answer. Defense up the middle is as important as good hitting. 17 years plus….No playoff teams. The problem isn’t the players. The problem is the management “team” that can’t seem to find a philosophy (See Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Astros) and stick with it.

    You need a combination of home grown talent, savvy trades and a productive free agent or two to compete regularly. Jumping from one plan to the next is not getting the Mariners anywhere. It is always back to the future with this organization. If not for my love of baseball, I’d have jumped ship years ago. That and, for too many years now, Safeco Field is the star of the franchise. It won’t keep me coming back forever. At some point I will have had enough of Dipoto and Servais (no one has mentioned his shortcomings, both tactically and motivational wise, in this debacle the past three years).

  • Husky73

    Zunino…great guy, outstanding defender…but, he would strike out in T-ball.

  • woofer

    Zunino’s lack of hitting production was frustrating, to be sure. And he seemed to get worse as the year wore on, suggesting that whatever he learned in spring training didn’t stick. But still…you have to cut some slack for a great defensive catcher who is also a clubhouse leader, particularly when you have no replacement lined up. So put me in the category of those whose initial reaction to this trade is negative.

  • jafabian

    Mallex Smith is the kind of player that Dipoto likes. He can hit and run and has a solid 3.5 WAR. But Jerry gave up solid defense behind the plate and a positive influence in the clubhouse. In that instance I believe it’s imperative to re-sign Nelson Cruz who also is a positive clubhouse leader. I was impressed how he reached out and welcomed Ryon Healy to the team the moment it became public that he was traded to the M’s. By giving up Zunino I don’t see how the club can’t go after free agent catchers Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos or Kurt Suzuki. They’ll be pricey but they can’t go cheap at catcher. I wouldn’t mind seeing the M’s bring back Michael Saunders to replace Heredia.

  • Estip

    Thank you for mentioning Jesus Montero. M’s need to bring him back so that he can fulfill his destiny.