It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Coming out of spring training this last season, Mike Zunino held a slash line of .395/.458/.791 with five dingers. He looked happy, comfortable, and confident at the plate. He looked like he was building on his 2017, when he posted similar numbers in the spring and finished with 3.7 fWAR thanks to his always-excellent defense and a second-half improvement that saw his wRC+ rise from 99 in the first half—still totally fine for a catcher with gold glove-caliber defense—to a scorching 155 over the second half.
2018 was supposed to be the Year of Mike Zunino.
Instead, an oblique injury knocked him out for the first month of the season, and an ankle injury later in the season. Zunino was never able to get on the right track offensively: although he recovered some of the power the oblique injury sapped from him, the strikeouts he’d worked hard to control over the second half of 2017 ballooned back up while his walk rate tumbled. It was, as Ryan Divish said, another lost year at the plate for Zunino.
And now there will be no chance for a Year of Mike Zunino in 2019. Or there might be, but it will be as a member of the Tampa Bay organization, as the Mariners dealt him and human ray of sunshine Guillermo Heredia to the Rays this week.
Beyond the actual players traded, this trade deals away psychological angst: Jerry Dipoto creates another fissure between his version of the Seattle Mariners and the roster he inherited, hurtling ever-nearer to the day that a clean break is made; and Zunino gets to lay down the burden of representing Mariner fans’ hopes and dreams for the future, a burden that grew heavier with each draft pick that flamed out. For Zunino, the trade to Tampa Bay represents a fresh start in his own backyard. His long, complicated, at times heart-wrenching history of player development in Seattle has come to an end.
We will miss him.
Back in June, before his season went off the rails, John wrote about the help the defensive wunderkind Zunino offers to a pitching staff that relies heavily on location. As it stands right now, the entire Mariners pitching staff just got a little worse, and maybe a lot worse. Defense has always been the one unassailable part of Zunino’s game, and Mariners fans who love the fine art of catching should start preparing themselves now to understand how spoiled we’ve been by watching Z’s plus-plus defense the last handful of years.
The biggest losers in this deal might be the Mariners pitching staff, who will lose Z’s ability to frame and throw out would-be base stealers, and also his congenial relationship with umps around the league (except that one who threw him out for arguing on behalf of a then-debuting Mike Montgomery, although that obviously only makes Zunino even better. Remember that? It was epic.)
The part that is frustrating about Zunino, of course, is his nursery-rhyme bat (when it is good it is very very good, and when it is bad it is awful). But this is a fond farewell piece, so let’s remember the good times, shall we? Like this monster go-ahead smash Eric wrote about in the game against the Angels the Mariners won in extras.
Or Mike’s weird ownership of the Minnesota Twins:
So nice he did it to ‘em twice:
How about Z’s longest-ever capital-D Dinger, a 470-foot blast against the Blue Jays:
Or the shot into the upper deck that even made Nelson Cruz go “wow”:
How about this time Mike Z sent Alex Cobb riding off into the sunset:
Or to cast it back a little further: remember when Mike Z was stronger than metal?
Go forth and be free, Mike. Just please take it easy on us when you play the Mariners. The idea of seeing one of those 500-foot home runs off one of our pitchers makes me a little ill.