Budget-conscious fans of either the Yanks or Rays have a massive offseason ahead of them, with nearly every key player on both rosters eligible for escalating levels of arbitration.
New York and Tampa Bay each have 19 players eligible, tied for the highest number in all of MLB. Wait, but isn’t that … don’t the Rays just cycle an endless swarm of 23-year-olds in and out of the roster to avoid this type of thing? Isn’t that … the main reason the Yankees have a budget crunch that Tampa’s been able to avoid?
Interesting. Very interesting.
Among the notable escalators on both rosters are the men behind the plate: Gary Sánchez in the Bronx, entering his final year of arbitration, and Mike Zunino in the Sunshine State, who has a club option tying him to the team for 2022 if they opt into it.
That option was made all the more expensive by the All-Star’s impressive season with both the bat and glove. So, as is the case with everything Rays-related, have we reached the expense level where they’d be willing to cut bait? And could the Yankees swoop in and add one of the few catchers as naturally powerful as Sánchez without all the baggage?
Could the Yankees add Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino?
While Yankees fans wrestle with the complex decision of whether or not to tender a contract to Sánchez, an offense-first catcher who ended up nearly exactly average offensively while maintaining his non-throwing-related defensive issues, it’s worth remembering that the Rays turned down Zunino’s option last offseason before ultimately bringing him back.
Say what you will about Tampa, but they’re far more willing to find unique solutions than the Yankees, who seem prone to checking boxes annually.
This season, Sánchez will cost an estimated $7.9 million, while Zunino’s rising option will check in at $7 million, up from $4 million if he’d played under 100 games this season. Is that unpalatable, for the better player? If the Rays decide cut Zunino loose, the Yankees could essentially offer Sánchez’s money and secure the services of a 30-homer threat who also piled up 7.0 defensive runs saved this season and positive framing numbers.
If we’re talking about the Yankees being unwilling to pay Sánchez nearly $8 million, why would the Rays pay Zunino $7 million when they have Francisco Mejia and a cadre of faceless backup options sitting behind him?
Zunino excels at everything Sánchez was supposed to bring to the table. He mashes lefties, a quality the Yankees lineup used to possess, but no longer does. He mashes most people these days, posting a 138 OPS+ this season — though it should be said that if Zunino’s 2019 season had come in pinstripes (.165, 45 OPS+) or been completed by Sánchez, fans would’ve imploded one-by-one.
There is a certain amount of boom-or-bust in Zunino’s game, but his vaunted handling of the Rays’ always-fluctuating pitching staff is a major part of the package, and he’ll likely cost at least a million dollars less than Sánchez in his walk year.
If New York believes in Sánchez, then they can’t let a premium slugger walk for nothing. If they aren’t sold, though, they should make sure Tampa dots their i’s and crosses their t’s on a suddenly-expensive option for Zunino. If not, the Bombers should pounce.