The Rays have exercised their $7MM club option to keep Mike Zunino in the fold for 2022, as reported by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Also, Topkin reports that the club has selected catcher Rene Pinto to the 40-man roster and designated left-handed pitcher Adam Conley for assignment.
After a mediocre showing in 2020, the Rays declined a $4.5MM club option on Zunino for 2021, but then re-signed him to a new deal. It paid him $2MM for the year, as well as a $1MM buyout on a club option for 2022, which had a base value of $4MM but could increase as high as $7MM if Zunino played 100 games on the campaign. In the end, he got into 109 games and thus increased the option to its maximum value of $7MM.
Along the way, he had arguably his best season, hitting 33 home runs and slashing .216/.301/.559. Combining that offensive production with his strong defensive numbers, he was worth 4.5 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, just shy of his personal best of 4.6 from 2017. That level of production made it a no-brainer for the Rays to pick up the option and keep him around.
However, with the perpetually-frugal Rays, you can never discount a player being sent packing via trade, no matter how good they’ve been. They’ve never had an opening day payroll higher than $77MM, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. In the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, their 2022 payroll is already hovering in that range. That might mean this offseason sees the Rays engage in more of their usual creative maneuverings to keep the team competitive under their self-imposed limits.
This year’s crop of free agent catchers is quite weak, meaning Zunino would be of great interest to other clubs if the Rays were to shop him around. But then again, that would leave the club with a big hole behind the plate, as Francisco Mejia would be the only catcher on the 40-man roster with big league experience.
The 25-year-old Pinto was added to prevent him from reaching minor league free agency in a few hours. He split this season almost evenly between Double-A and Triple-A. Overall, he played 93 games, slashing .274/.325/.500, good enough for a wRC+ of 121.
As for Conley, the 31-year-old logged 19 2/3 innings for the Rays this year, with an ERA of 2.29. He was projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $900K through arbitration, but the club will instead subtract him from the roster. Teams will now have seven days to claim Conley or work out a trade with the Rays. If he clears waivers, he can elect free agency as a player with more than three years’ service time.