Despite Different Directions, Mariners and Rays Both Improve Big League Roster in Trade

In a trade first reported by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, the Seattle Mariners are sending catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and outfielder Jake Fraley.

Both Jerry Dipoto and Erik Neander have been highly active in reshaping their rosters, with different objectives in mind. In 2018, the Mariners were a win-now organization trying to end the longest postseason drought in baseball, while the Rays were shipping out big names to go for it starting in 2020. However, the unexpected occurred when the Rays won 90 games and the Mariners collapsed in the second half.

Now, the offseason focuses still remain different from one another, but the narrative has changed from last year. The Rays are looking to take another step forward from 2018, while according to Dipoto, the Mariners are planning to re-imagine their roster this winter.

Zunino, was the third overall pick by the Mariners in 2012, who has not lived up to that standard. He had a career year in 2017 hitting .251, his highest ever by 37 points. But in 2018, Zunino barely hit over .200 with an 85 OPS+. His defensive skills are still very good, and he will be the starting catcher for the Rays in 2019. The Rays were in dire need of a catcher, and perhaps a change of scenery can also help Zunino, who will be 28 in March. Just like in Seattle, Zunino will not have to carry the burden offensively as there will be other sources of power led by Jake Bauers and Tommy Pham. He can focus on a young pitching staff where a handful of them have high ceilings.

Heredia showed flashes in his Mariners tenure, but he remains more of a fourth outfielder who can play anywhere in the outfield. Austin Meadows is also in the fold, and whether he starts with the big league club or in Triple-A, he has to be an everyday player. Kevin Kiermaier and Pham will start in the other two spots, so there was a bit of a logjam in the outfield.

Smith was a key contributor to why the Rays were in the position they were last season, but with their crowded outfield, he became expendable. With Dee Gordon‘s uncertain future, Smith is a leadoff option who can get on base and be an impact player on the bases. Smith will turn 26 early next season, and while the Mariners get younger and more athletic in this trade, this is not a rebuilding move. He is an upgrade to Heredia, and eventually the Mariners were going to have to make the internal decision to part ways with Zunino.

It will be difficult to see the Mariners enter a complete teardown, but with the lack of a strong farm system and big contracts such as Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Gordon, and Felix Hernandez on the books, it’s not an ideal situation to be in. The Mariners have been putting band-aids to improve their roster, and to Dipoto’s defense, he hasn’t had much of a choice. A fair share of Dipoto’s trades capitalized on a team’s depth — like acquiring Ryon Healy from Oakland — or plucking off another club’s 40-man roster to build his bullpen.

They tried to win when Cano and Hernandez were in their primes, but injuries and suspensions have been a factor in derailing that objective. As the winter progresses, the expectation is to see more of the trades we saw last night, rather than a rebuild. The American League West is stacked with the Houston Astros, the Oakland Athletics, and even the Los Angeles Angels because of their eagerness to win in this window. Dipoto has his hands full, but his creativity is undeniable and that will be the case again.

The Rays are also in a tough division, but they should be optimistic after shattering expectations in 2018. Kevin Cash is an AL Manager of the Year finalist, and their rebuild is well ahead of schedule. They also dominated at home with a 51-30 record, despite playing under .500 away from Tropicana Field.

Last year the Mariners and the Rays were polar opposites in terms of the direction of the franchise. The Mariners thought it was their year, and they were half of a season away from reaching that goal. The Rays traded franchise icon Evan Longoria and looked on track to lose 100 games. Fast forward to this winter, and this trade shows how far one team has come, and how the other is doing their best to stay relevant.

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