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Mariners acquire Mallex Smith from Rays for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia

The Rays solidify their catching position but trade their most electrifying young position player in the process.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Texas Rangers Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays and Mariners have struck the first major trade of the 2018-19 offseason, with Tampa sending outfielder Mallex Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley to Seattle in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and minor-league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer. The deal was initially reported by The Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish and the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin on Wednesday night.

While Zunino, a former No. 3 overall pick, is likely the most recognizable name in this deal for most fans, the true prize of the trade is the 25-year-old Smith, who had a breakout 2018, posting a .296/.367/.406 slash line with 27 doubles, an AL-best 10 triples, two homers, and 40 steals over 544 plate appearances while starting 62 games in center field, 42 in right, and 23 in left. While some may still be skeptical of Smith because of his lack of power, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he a highly impactful leadoff hitter (and quite arguably the heart and soul) for a Rays team that won 90 games despite being almost totally devoid of established veteran position players in 2018.

With that said, the 27-year-old Zunino is a quality addition for the Rays, who relied on journeyman Jesus Sucre and career minor-leaguer Michael Perez as their catchers down the stretch after trading Wilson Ramos to the Phillies. Zunino has had trouble staying consistent offensively over his six-year major-league career, but he’s got good power for a catcher — he has double-digit homers in every season since 2014 and has hit at least 20 in three of those five seasons, despite the fact that he’s played his home games in a pitcher’s paradise. He’s also stellar defensively, having posted 12 defensive runs saved — which tied for second behind Jeff Mathis’ 17 — and committing just two errors and throwing out 35% of runners in 2018. He’s needed tune-up trips to the minors in every season since 2015 because of his inconsistent hitting, and he’ll probably never be a good contact hitter — he has a career .207 average and a .276 OBP, and he hit .201/.259/.410 in 2018. But with the catching position being so bad around the majors right now and Zunino being an elite defender and above-average power hitter, he was clearly a desirable commodity. Zunino is a Coral Gables, Florida native and attended the University of Florida, so he’ll obviously be much closer to home now than he was in the Pacific Northwest.

The 27-year-old Heredia is likely best suited to be a fourth outfielder at the major-league level but has played quite a bit for the Mariners over the last two seasons, seeing action in 248 games and starting 193. He hasn’t shown a lot of growth offensively, as he’s posted a .244/.321/.336 line over his first three big-league seasons and hit .236/.318/.342 in 2018. Though he struggled a bit defensively this past season, he obviously has the skill set to be decently effective at all three outfield positions, having collected six defensive runs saved in 2017.

Tampa still has plenty of outfield depth, as they’ll replace Smith with another above-average defender in Heredia and also have Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, and Tommy Pham. Utility players Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, and Brandon Lowe can also fill in at the outfield corners, as can first baseman Jake Bauers if necessary. Still, though, it’s not an exceptionally great look for the Rays to move their most exciting young position player — he finished second only to the 28-year-old Wendle in both bWAR and fWAR among Rays position players in 2018.

This will technically be Smith’s second stint in Seattle; he spent part of a day as a Mariner in January 2017 after being dealt along with Shae Simmons for Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows. The Mariners ended up flipping him to the Rays later in the day as part of a three-player package for starter Drew Smyly, who never pitched in a game for Seattle as he began the season on the DL with a flexor strain, underwent Tommy John surgery in June, and was non-tendered following the season. When you add it all up, the Rays will have essentially traded a solid starting catcher in Zunino, an above-average fourth outfielder in Heredia, Gohara and Burrows (both intriguing pitching prospects), Ryan Yarbrough, who was included in the Smyly trade and has turned into a good long reliever for Tampa, and utility infield prospect Carlos Vargas — the third player in that deal — for the privilege of actually getting to use Smith (plus whatever value you place on the nine mostly bad relief appearances they got out of Simmons in 2017).

Seattle will have some work to do to fill the catching position, as 29-year-old backup David Freitas, who has just 42 games of big-league experience, is now the only backstop left on the roster. But with a decent amount of quality catchers on the market — fringe/platoon starter types such as Brian McCann, Matt Wieters, Devin Mesoraco, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Kurt Suzuki, Nick Hundley, Robinson Chirinos, and Mathis complement the two prizes of the class, Ramos and Yasmani Grandal — it shouldn’t be too hard for the Mariners to fill the position from the outside.

Fraley, a 23-year-old left-handed hitter, was taken in the second round out of LSU by the Rays in 2016. He’s progressed steadily through Tampa’s system, and though he missed the first two months of the season with an injury this year, he ended up posting a ridiculous .347/.415/.547 slash line with four homers and 11 steals over 66 games at High-A Charlotte in 2018.

Plassmeyer, meanwhile, was taken by the Mariners out of Mizzou in the fourth round of this year’s draft. The 22-year-old pitched in 13 games, starting 12, for the short-season Everett AquaSox. He was dominant at that level, posting a 2.25 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with a ridiculous 44 strikeouts and just four walks in 24 innings.