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Rays return to Mike Zunino

After kicking him to the curb, the Rays looked at the catching market and decided they want Zunino back.

2020 World Series Game 6: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Roughly six weeks after declining his club option, the Tampa Bay Rays have re-signed Mike Zunino. The catcher was due to make $4.5 million in 2021, but the Rays brought him back for $3 million guaranteed which includes his $1 million buyout. Zunino’s new contract also includes a club option that scales with the number of games he plays.

Zunino hasn’t played like an everyday starter with the Rays, but the job figures to be his until they add another catcher. The reunion with Zunino wasn’t necessarily the Rays not realizing what they had until it was gone, but more like standing in a barren toilet paper aisle and realizing it’s a four-pack of single ply, a deluxe 36-pack made of angel feathers or whatever is laying about. The Rays aren’t about to splurge on the nice stuff, so JT Realmuto is out, and what the Rays have laying around hasn’t seen action above Double-A.

With James McCann getting scooped up, the free agent catcher market is looking pretty shallow. According to Steamer, there are three free agent catchers projected for more fWAR than Zunino in 2021: Realmuto, Yadier Molina, and Wilson Ramos. We know Realmuto is well out of Tampa Bay’s self-imposed budget, and both Ramos and Molina don’t figure to be that much better than Zunino but they’ll likely cost twice the price.

Over the past two seasons, Zunino has hit .161/.233/.323. In 373 plate appearances, he’s struck out 36.2 percent of the time while walking at a 7 percent clip. It’s been three full seasons since Zunino posting slash lines 20 percent better than league average while providing great defense behind the dish, but if we’re willing to believe 2020 was a blip, his glove makes him worth it.

He’s not quite the savant that Jeff Mathis or Austin Hedges is, but since his call-up in 2013, Zunino is tenth in DRS and fifth in FanGraphs’ framing runs among catchers with at least 2000 innings caught. 2020 was the first year Zunino had ever posted negative values in either category, but I wouldn’t worry too much about 215 innings of work.

Zunino’s defense should rebound in 2021, but there’s no guarantees about his bat. This kind of production is what you would expect from a player with a career 34.5 percent strikeout rate. Still, a low-contact, high power approach is preferable to just low contact. Zunino survived because when he did run into one, it went a long way. Zunino can still reach exit velocities of 113 mph or more; he just does so with much less regularity than in his final years with the Mariners.

The Rays’ search for catching help shouldn’t end with Zunino, but there aren’t a lot of great options left. Jason Castro and Alex Avila are the two best left-handed hitting catcher available if the Rays wanted to platoon. Avila strikes out about as often as Zunino does, but he gets on base with more regularity. Castro’s glove isn’t as good as Zunino’s, but his bat is a little more consistent even if it’s not necessarily good. Where the Rays will find additional help behind the plate is anyone’s guess. The reigning AL pennant winners should still be contenders in 2021, but it won’t be because of their catching.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.