Escalators increase the price of the Rays option on Mike Zunino
Spoke backstop Mike Zunino had the best season of his career in 2021, and his durability and solid production behind the dish have pushed up the price it will cost Tampa Bay to retain him in 2022. Zunino has resigned with the Rays on a contract of ‘a year with a $ 4 million Club Option in the last offseason, but as the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin points out, it was reported at the time of the deal that Zunino’s option would drop from 4 million to $ 7 million if he appeared in 100 or more games this season. .
Zunino surpassed that mark by reaching 109 games, and he had a career record 33 home runs. This mark, reached in 375 plate appearances, corresponds to that of Zunino combined 2018-20 home run total (778 home plate appearances). The 30-year-old is still hitting at a prolific pace (35.2% in 21), but he’s also posted the second base walk rate of his career (9.1%) and played his usual mark of solid defense (7 defensive runs recorded, plus framing marks – but with 10 balls passed league lead). Overall, Zunino’s .216 / .301 / .559 hitting line resulted in a 134 wRC +.
It is probably unrealistic to expect Zunino to repeat this offensive season in 2022. His 30.3% homer-to-flyball ratio was the highest of his career by over six percentage points and tied for the 19th best season of all players. with at least 350 plaque appearances, dating back to 2010.
That said, Zunino’s rise to power doesn’t feel like a fluke, either. Statcast shows that its average exit speed increased from 88.9 mph in 2018-2020 to 90.7 mph in 2021. Its rate of cannon bullets exploded from 12.8% in 2018-20 to 24.3% a last season, and his hard-hit rate jumped more than five percentage points to 46.5 percent – the second-best of his career. He would struggle to repeat that performance across the board, but it’s reasonable to expect some middle ground between Zunino’s great 2021 and the three disappointing previous seasons.
Regardless of the price increase, Zunino’s option looks like a bargain. The Rays still owe him a $ 1 million buyout, making it a net call of $ 6 million on their end, and the free agent market isn’t rich in alternatives. None of the names available can match Zunino’s mix of power and defense, and it stands to reason that if he returned to the open market, he would exceed next year’s option price with relative ease.
The Rays already have a potential successor on the roster, as a 25-year-old Francisco Mejia posted a strong slash of .260 / .322 / .416 in a career-high 277 home plate appearances this year. He will be eligible for officiating this winter – as will 18 other Rays – but the combination of Zunino and Mejia should still be an affordable and productive couple. (Anecdotally, keeping both for the 2022 season also limits Mejia’s playing time and thus limits future umpiring increases, though that’s unlikely to be a significant part of the math.)
Ultimately, any noticeable increase in the salary (or potential salary) of a Rays player is worth mentioning, as the Tampa Bay front office makes some startling decisions driven by perpetual salary constraints every offseason. It’s hard to imagine leaving Zunino after a 33-homer All-Star season, but the very fact that it will cost them an extra few million dollars could lead to more difficult decisions elsewhere on the roster as well.