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The Offseason’s First Trade: Mike Zunino for Mallex Smith

A 90-win team traded arguably its top position player, in Mallex Smith, for a catcher who hit .201. An 87-win team traded away a former top-five draft pick, in Mike Zunino, to leave themselves with one catcher on their roster. That player, David Freitas, will be thirty years old come opening day and has all of 123 MLB plate appearances, with a .218/.271/.318 line, no less.

For that reason, it makes sense that both teams’ fanbases seemed to react negatively to Thursday’s Mike Zunino for Mallex Smith swap between the Mariners and the Rays. Yet it makes quite a bit of sense for both clubs, with Smith, in particular, a cleaner fit on Seattle’s roster than he ever was in Tampa. Additional moves are forthcoming, of course. Freitas won’t be the Mariners’ starting catcher come March, and the Rays might need to supplement their outfield mix since none of Kevin Kiermaier, Tommy Pham or Austin Meadows are paragons of health. The offseason is just beginning for both clubs. In the interim, I’ll dive into the fantasy values of the players involved in the winter’s first major swap.

Can’t wait until the spring to get the 2019 fantasy baseball season started? Well, you don’t have to. Leagues are already open for 2019, so get your league started today.

Mallex Smith to the Mariners

Smith is the player of most fantasy intrigue here, offering something of a roto-floor. He’s coming off the board 34th among outfielders, 129th overall. Stolen bases are a rarity, and Smith offers them in spades. Only Whit Merrifield and Trea Turner swiped more bags than Smith’s 40 in 2018, and he’s got top 15 sprint speed, per Statcast. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though.

Smith’s 2017 was probably his realistic stolen base ceiling. After all, you’ve got to reach base to steal one. Last season, Smith had plenty of opportunities to run, since he was constantly aboard. He hit .296 and drew an average number of walks, translating into a stellar .367 on-base percentage. Indeed, Smith was caught stealing 12 times last season, too. His gaudy steals total was more a product of sheer running opportunities than elite efficiency.

Still, stolen base percentage isn’t as important to fantasy owners as raw volume. Why should it matter if Smith gets thrown out a few times, so long as he continues to run? The issue is that his .367 OBP is a significant outlier, propped up by immense batted ball luck. His .366 BABIP last season was fourth in baseball, and the three players in front of him (J.D. Martinez, Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts) scorch the ball like few others. Those guys hit rockets all over the field, so it’s easy to see why everything drops in for hits. Smith, not so much. He was in the bottom ten percent of the league in exit velocity, per Statcast, last year, and the players with similar contact metrics are not encouraging. Based on his batted ball data, in fact, Smith “should have” hit .241, nothing near the .296 hitter he actually was.

Mallex Smith 2018 exit velocity

Batted ball estimators tend to underrate “small ball” players so that .241 estimator is admittedly misleading. Mallex Smith sprays the ball to all fields, so defenses can’t shift him, and he can turn soft ground balls into infield hits in a way that most hitters cannot. It’s certainly true that contact metrics can’t account for everything Smith can do. But a .055 point gap between his actual results and his expected results is really high (third-most in baseball, in fact). He looks like a bit of a regression candidate. Consider the top ten batted ball overperformers from 2017.

Batted Ball Overperformers

Only two players among that top 10 didn’t have significantly worse seasons in 2018. Now, one of those overperformers was Mallex Smith, so you could potentially make a case that there’s something special about Smith’s skills. Still, Smith’s skill set is a lot like those of DeShields or Gordon, and both of those players did regress. Smith should do the same.

Steamer, for instance, forecasts Smith to hit .261 with a .329 OBP next season. All of a sudden, he doesn’t look all that dissimilar from the other speedsters (DeShields, Billy Hamilton) currently tracking 100 picks after him. He just wouldn’t have as many opportunities to take advantage of his speed.

I also think it’s telling that the Rays were willing to move Smith at all. They’re clear postseason contenders and Smith was one of their more valuable players in 2018. Equally as important to the cost-conscious organization, he’ll be on a league-minimum salary, having narrowly missed out on arbitration eligibility. As Dylan Anderson pointed out, they can’t count on Kiermaier to play 150 games in center field. This is the kind of player you would think the Rays would covet. Yet they were willing to move him in the first week of the offseason. It suggests- to me at least- that they don’t see Smith as the player their fans might. They might see this as a sell-high opportunity.

It’s possible the projections are regressing Mallex Smith too heavily. Personally, I would take the over on all three projected slash categories (.261/.329/.364). But Smith’s 2018 results neither line up with his track record or his season peripherals. Even if he regresses offensively, Smith is a safe bet for at least 30 steals and 600 plate appearances. That alone has value in roto leagues. Yet he’s dangerously close to being a one-category guy. He’s the most valuable piece in this trade, but it might be closer than you first thought.

Mike Zunino to the Rays

You can make a case that Seattle bought Mallex Smith at his highest point. You can also make the case that they sold Mike Zunino at his lowest. He had a putrid .201/.259/.410 slash last year after a BABIP-fueled breakout season of his own in 2017. I don’t think anyone truly bought Zunino as the .251 hitter he was that season since he had bounced between .174 and .214 in every other MLB season and had actually posted his highest strikeout rate that season. He set a new career mark in striking out in 2018, so we pretty much know who he is at this point.

He’s not a hacker, despite his ghastly strikeout and walk numbers. He chases a little more often than average, but it’s nothing crazy. Zunino’s problem has always been bat control. He simply swings through too many hittable pitches. Per Fangraphs, Zunino made contact on ¾ of his swings at pitches in the strike zone last season, right in line with his career rate. That ranked fourth-worst out of 278 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, above only Ian Happ, Joey Gallo, and Jorge Alfaro. In scouting terms, Mike Zunino is a 20-grade hitter.

The catching position is pitiful enough that he’ll still get some fantasy run, though. He’s eclipsed 20 home runs in each of the past two seasons, and he’s coming off a season in which he had a top-five exit velocity at the position. When he makes contact, he can put a charge in the ball. That power alone could make him a low-end fantasy option. He’s just never shown the ability to make enough contact to be anything more than that. Mike Zunino is loaded with the softer skills that matter to the Rays. He’s got a cannon, he’s always rated as an elite pitch framer, he connects well with pitchers. Unfortunately, those traits aren’t going to show up for fantasy owners.

The Rest of the Deal

Guillermo Heredia goes alongside Zunino to Tampa. In May, I wrote optimistically that he could emerge as a potential contact and speed outfielder, in some respects envisioning what Smith turned out to be. Instead, Heredia hit .236/.318/.342 and played his way back onto the bench. Oh well.

Two minor-leaguers with gaudy performances changed hands, but neither should be of much interest to dynasty leaguers. Jake Fraley, a High-A outfielder, heads to Seattle, while Michael Plassmeyer, a Low-A left-hander, heads to Tampa. Both dominated their respective levels, but neither has much in the way of physical tools. Fraley’s underpowered, Plassmeyer doesn’t have much velocity. Both guys came from top college conferences (Fraley played in the ACC at Maryland, Plassmeyer in the SEC at Missouri), so they weren’t facing much of a step up in competition from their amateur days. If they perform in the high minors, they might play their way onto fantasy radars, but for now, they can safely be left on the wire.

Keep up with all the latest Fantasy Baseball happenings with Van Lee, Jeff Zimmerman, and Rob Silver on the Launch Angle Podcast.

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