The first trade of consequence this offseason has been agreed upon, per multiple reports. The Rays are sending outfielder Mallex Smith back to the Mariners — they got Smith from the Mariners in 2017 — for outfielder Guillermo Heredia and catcher Mike Zunino, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that there are also two minor-leaguers — one going each way — involved in the deal.
All the reporting around the Mariners since the beginning of the general manager meetings has been that we can expect a sell-off, even if it’s not gutting the entire big-league roster. This would be a move in that direction without being a big-time or surprising name.
Zunino, 27, hit .251/.331/.509 in 2017, good for a 125 OPS+, but that dipped to .201/.259/.410 (85 OPS+) last season. He still hit 20 home runs, though, and a bounce back is possible. The bat probably isn’t why the Rays acquired him, though. They didn’t have an obvious starter heading to the season behind the plate and Zunino is an excellent defensive catcher. He scored out at +16 in defensive runs saved last season while ranking seventh among catchers with at least 5,000 innings in his ability to frame pitches. He also throws out base-stealers at an above average clip.
If the Rays determine at some point next year they want catching prospect Nick Ciuffo to start getting regular looks in the bigs, Zunino is a perfect on-the-job tutor.
Heredia, 27, is outfield depth. He hit .236/.318/.342 with 14 doubles and five homers in 337 plate appearances last season.
On the Mariners’ return side, Smith is coming off a breakout season. He hit .296/.367/.406 with 27 doubles, 40 steals and an AL-best 10 triples. He compiled 3.5 WAR at age 25. He likely slides into center field and is a good candidate to lead off, especially with Dee Gordon either likely to be traded or sticking around with his 2018 .288 on-base percentage.
Back on the Rays’ end, they sold high on Smith and had the ability to do so after acquiring both Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows in trades last season to flank Kevin Kiermaier for next season.
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