Mike Zunino may not have to go far from his home in Gainesville, Fla., when the 2019 season begins.
Multiple Major League Baseball sources said the Mariners are finalizing a deal with their favorite trade partner, the Tampa Bay Rays. Seattle would send Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia to Tampa in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith.
The two teams have been engaged in trade talks since last week. And like with all trades, until the medical reports and details are cleared, the trade won’t be finalized. But the basic framework of the deal is in place.
This is the 10th trade between the Mariners and Rays since general manager Jerry Dipoto began his tenure in Seattle.
Zunino, who picked up the award as the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award for catchers on Wednesday afternoon, has been a brilliant defensive catcher for the Mariners at the big-league level over five and a half season, playing in 575 games and logging more than 4,829 innings behind the plate. His bat, however, didn’t display that sort of consistency. He struggled with swings and misses, striking out in 34 percent of his 2,087 plate appearances. But there were periods, particularly the 2017 season where he hit .250 with 25 doubles, 25 homers and 64 RBIs in 124 games that gave the Mariners hope that he could be an All-Star level catcher and foundational piece for the organization.
Taken with third overall pick of the 2012 draft out of the University of Florida, Zunino was rushed to the big leagues to his own detriment by the previous management regime, making his big-league debut midway through the 2013 season after less than 100 minor-league games. He predictably struggled to adjust to the advanced pitching of the big leagues.
Heredia has served as a fourth outfielder for the Mariners over the past three seasons, earning stretches of every day play due to injuries. He struggled at the plate with the increased playing time, posting a .236/.318/.342 slash line with 14 doubles, a triple, five homers and 19 RBIs in 125 games. But he’s an exceptional defensive outfielder that will fill a need on the Rays roster.
Smith was actually a Mariner for a total of 77 minutes in January of 2017. Seattle acquired him and reliever Shae Simmons from the Braves for pitchers Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows. Just over an hour later, Dipoto sent him and two minor leaguers to the Rays in exchange for left Drew Smyly.
Smith had a breakout season for the Rays, posting a .296/.367/.406 slash line with 27 doubles, 10 triples, two homers, 40 RBIs and 40 stolen bases in 141 games with the Rays. He can play all three outfield positions. And if the Mariners decide to move Dee Gordon to the infield, Smith would be their every day centerfielder. Smith will make the league minimum in 2019 and then be arbitration eligible for three years.
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