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Guardians sign Mike Zunino to one-year deal

Cleveland has found their catcher

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians have signed Mike Zunino to a one-year, $6 million deal according to Ken Rosenthal, Robert Murray and Zack Meisel, among others.

Zunino is a right-handed hitter and will turn 32 years old shortly before the 2023 season starts. He played only 36 games for Tampa Bay in 2022, discovering he had thoracic outlet syndrome which was causing weakness and tingling in his non-throwing shoulder, after which he had surgery to correct the problem. His 43 wRC+ in 2022 won’t impress anyone, but he has an 88 wRC+ for his career, and as recent as 2021, he put up a 134 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR, 7 DRS, and 8 FRAA, with a 1.93s pop-time in 2021. For 2023, Steamer projects him for 313 PA, 86 wRC+, 15 HR, and 1.7 fWAR.

For his career, Zunino certainly has displayed the defensive prowess that the Guardians love, putting up 51 DRS and 71.2 FRAA in 10 total seasons. Zunino also has a 101 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers for his career.

As mentioned above, Zunino underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery on July 28, and reported being symptom-free at the end of August. For what it is worth, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a recent example of a catcher who had thoracic outlet surgery and proceeded to have a solid career afterward, actually hitting better after surgery than he did before. However, Saltalamacchia was seven years younger than Zunino at the time. Cleveland is clearly placing faith not only in Zunino’s rehab process but also in their physicians who checked him out before this deal was signed.

In the six seasons in which Zunino has played 90 or more games, he has averaged 20 homers.

He also has a career strikeout rate of 34.7% and a walk rate of 6.9%, so he provides a rare example of boom or bust that the team had eliminated from their active roster in 2022 after moving on from both Franmil Reyes and Bobby Bradley. If healthy, Zunino should provide excellent defense and some needed pop to the Cleveland lineup, but fans should brace themselves for some untimely strikeouts in the exchange.

This deal indicates to me that Cleveland sincerely believes in Bo Naylor as the catcher of the future. Rather than more aggressively pursuing Sean Murphy, Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno, or even Danny Jansen, the Guardians have chosen a path that allows them to compete in 2023 but doesn’t block Bo from forcing his way on to the active roster at any point. Zunino is an excellent fit to split time with a young catcher and, if willing, to share from his decade of experience handling some excellent pitching staffs in Seattle and, especially, Tampa Bay. Zunino offers about 3 and a half percentiles of improvement over Hedges in wRC+ while losing the team very little if anything defensively.

Given the failed attempt, however serious, to acquire Murphy, Zunino is a solid consolation prize that should give the Guardians a chance at a positive WAR from the catcher position in 2023. Hopefully, along with newly acquired Meibrys Viloria, Zunino will allow the Guardians’ star prospect catcher Noah “Bo” Naylor to develop at his own pace.