Rays backstop Mike Zunino had the best season of his career in 2021, and his durability and strong production behind the dish have upped the price it’ll cost Tampa Bay to retain him in 2022. Zunino re-signed with the Rays on a one-year deal with a $4MM club option this past offseason, but as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times points out, it was reported at the time of the deal that Zunino’s option would increase from $4MM to $7MM if he appeared in 100 or more games this season.
Zunino topped that mark by reaching 109 games, and he swatted a career-best 33 home runs in the process. That mark, reached in 375 plate appearances, matches Zunino’s combined home run total from 2018-20 (778 plate appearances). The 30-year-old still strikes out at a prolific rate (35.2 percent in ’21), but he also posted the second-base walk rate of his career (9.1 percent) and played his usual brand of strong defense (7 Defensive Runs Saved, plus framing marks — albeit with a league-leading 10 passed balls). Overall, Zunino’s .216/.301/.559 batting line translated to a 134 wRC+.
It’s probably not realistic to expect Zunino to repeat that offensive season in 2022. His 30.3 percent homer-to-flyball ratio was the highest of his career by more than six percentage points and tied for the 19th-highest single-season mark of any player with at least 350 plate appearances, dating back to 2010.
That said, Zunino’s power surge doesn’t look like a total fluke, either. Statcast shows that his average exit velocity jumped from 88.9 mph from 2018-20 to 90.7 mph in 2021. His rate of barreled balls exploded from 12.8 percent in 2018-20 to 24.3 percent this past season, and his hard-hit rate jumped by more than five percentage points to 46.5 percent — second-best of his career. He’d be hard-pressed to repeat that showing across the board, but it’s reasonable to expect a middle ground between Zunino’s big 2021 and the underwhelming three prior seasons.
Regardless of the increased price, Zunino’s option looks like a relative bargain. The Rays owe him a $1MM buyout regardless, making it a net $6MM call on their end, and the free-agent market isn’t deep with alternatives. None of the available names can match Zunino’s blend of power and defense, and it stands to reason that were he set back out into the open market, he’d top the price of next year’s option with relative ease.
The Rays do have a potential successor on the roster already, as switch-hitting 25-year-old Francisco Mejia posted a solid .260/.322/.416 slash in a career-high 277 plate appearances this year. He’ll be arbitration-eligible this winter — as will a whopping 18 other Rays — but the combination of Zunino and Mejia should still be an affordable and productive pairing. (Anecdotally, keeping both for the 2022 season also curbs Mejia’s playing time and thus curbs future arbitration raises, though that’s unlikely to be a major part of the calculus.)
At the end of the day, any notable increase in salary (or potential salary) for a Rays player is worth mention, because the Tampa Bay front office makes surprising decisions driven by perennial payroll constraints every offseason. It’s tough to imagine moving on from Zunino after a 33-homer, All-Star season, but the very fact that it’ll cost them a few extra million dollars could also lead to some tougher decisions elsewhere on the roster.