The Cleveland Guardians have upgraded their catching depth this offseason.
The Guardians have added veteran catcher Mike Zunino as a free agent, signing him to a 1-year, $6M contract.
In addition, the Guardians have signed veteran catchers Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria as non-roster, spring training invitees.
Prospects Bryan Lavastida, Bo Naylor, and versatile corner infielder and catcher David Fry round out the current primary organizational catching depth.
In all probability, Zunino, who will turn 32 in March, will be the team’s primary catcher. Unless there is another addition, it is likely Zunino’s back-up on the 26-man roster will be determined following spring training.
Ultimately, the Guardians are hoping Naylor will assume the catching role in the future. For now, however, Naylor is probably headed for more seasoning in his development at Triple-A Columbus.
Zunino will enter the 2022 MLB season after undergoing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome on his left, non-throwing arm. He played in only 32 games for the Tampa Bay Rays last season.
Zunino originally reported a tingling sensation in his left arm. He received a Botox injection in June and neck treatment in July of 2022. He had his surgery July 28, 2022.
According to Hopkinsmedicine.org, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) occurs when the nerves leading from the neck to the arm are compressed. This form of TOS is called Neurogenic TOS. More than 90% of cases are neurogenic.
Venous TOS occurs when the vein is compressed, leading to upper body thrombosis.
It is unclear to this writer which form of TOS impacted Zunino.
Zunino is expected to be ready to resume his baseball activity at the start of spring training.
Risk/Reward Calculation With Zunino
During attendance at the MLB Scouting Bureau’s Scout School, this old scout learned the value and importance of risk/reward calculations in player transactions.
To this scout, the rewards for signing Zunino far outweigh the risks that his injury permanently hampered Zunino’s offensive or defensive abilities.
If, in fact, Zunino is symptom free, he will provide an offensive upgrade to the Guardians starting lineup.
Zunino is also known as a good defensive catcher. He handles pitchers well, and his defensive mechanics are well above major league average.
One might wonder if Guardians manager Terry Francona, and Tampa Bays manager Kevin Cash have discussed the abilities and surgery regarding Zunino? Francona and Cash are very close friends.
Also during Scout School, instructors shared three major questions for scouts to answer for themselves when evaluating a player, and his potential “fit” for a team. They include:
1- Does the player have the skills to play the game?
2- Is the player better than those we have at his position?
3- Can the player play for us?
Question three is critically important. In short, does the player have the attitude, demeanor, desire, knowledge of the game and temperament to fit into the team’s clubhouse without causing undo harm? Not all players have that ability.
For this scout, Mike Zunino is an excellent fit for a Guardians team that has a need for a primary catcher until Bo Naylor’s development is complete.
Mike Zunino As The Primary Catcher:
Mike Zunino assumes the primary catching role that was ably handled in 2022 by Austin Hedges.
Hedges, 30, offered the Guardians steady and reliable defensive play behind the plate.
In 2021, Hedges threw out 31% of the runners trying to steal. Last year, his percentage dropped a bit to 22%.
Hedges did not provide much offense for Cleveland. While he had some important and timely hits, he finished the year hitting .163/.241/.248/.489 with seven home runs, and 30 RBIs in 338 plate appearances.
Hedges has signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Luke Maile, 31, was the backup to Hedges last season.
Like Hedges, Maile didn’t offer much offense. He hit .221/.301/.326/.627 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 206 plate appearances.
Even with low offensive production, Maile did a credible job as part of the Guardians catching combo.
Maile has signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
Both Hedges and Maile were “defense first” catchers. They handled games well, were good shepherds to their pitching staff, and they had good catching mechanics that included good blocking, good pitch framing, and timely, accurate “pop” and throw skills from behind the plate.
About Mike Zunino:
Right-handed hitting Mike Zunino is 6-2, 235 pounds, with an ideal frame for a catcher.
Zunino was a 1st round selection of the Seattle Mariners out of the University of Florida in 2012.
Zunino hit .348 in 595 collegiate plate appearances. In two seasons, he hit 38 home runs, and drove in 134 runs.
The Golden Spikes Award is given to the best amateur player in the United States. Zunino won the coveted award in 2012.
As the third overall pick in the draft, Zunino received a $4M signing bonus from the Mariners.
Zunino made his major league debut at the age of 22 in 2013. He played parts of six seasons with Seattle.
On November 6, 2020, the Mariners traded Zunino to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he has played parts for four seasons.
While he is a good defensive catcher, Zunino’s power might be his best overall tool. In fact, in 2021, he hit a career best 31 home runs. He made the American League All Star team that year as well.
Zunino has strong hands and wrists, and has always had a strong and accurate throwing arm. While the entire body is engaged in throws from the catching position, Zunino’s injury last year did not impact his throwing arm.
Zunino has thrown out 28% of runners trying to steal in his 832 games played as a major leaguer.
A tough out, Zunino goes to the plate with a plan. A smart hitter, Zunino makes good, hard contact, and he has the ability to use the entire field.
When evaluating Zunino during the 2012 Arizona Fall League, this scout gave him a Grade of 60 on the 40-80 MLB scouting scale. That translates to a player with more than one above average tool, and the potential to be an occasional All Star.
One comment Zunino made to this writer during that fall season still lingers. He said he felt he should be the starting catcher for the Mariners. That, at the age of 21, and in only his second year as a professional.
In fact, he was right. Zunino made his big league debut the following season.
Since that time in the Fall League, Zunino has not shown an ability to hit for a good batting average, posting a career .200 average in parts of 10 big league seasons covering 2,958 plate appearances. He has, however, hit 145 career home runs, with the potential to bring that powerful bat to Cleveland.
New Guardians primary catcher Mike Zunino is a good offensive/defensive catcher, capable of providing a quality starting catcher upgrade.
Zunino will be called upon by the Guardians to mentor prospect catcher Bo Naylor and provide the Guardians with an offensive upgrade.
If Zunino proves to be healthy, the Guardians may have found an outstanding upgrade for their already exciting, and promising lineup.
To this scout, the rewards for the Guardians signing Zunino far outweigh the risks that issues linger from 2022 Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.
While Bo Naylor may be the Guardians catcher of the future, Mike Zunino is capable of providing an excellent bridge until the graduation of Naylor to the big leagues.