The Cleveland Guardians made two notable additions in free agency this past offseason which both fit under the umbrella term boom or bust. While both have clearly busted so far, this is about one of the players in particular, Mike Zunino. Zunino has been a complete disappointment and it is time to admit the mistake and move on.
The breaking point in regards to Zunino was the catcher's interference from Tuesday's loss to Chicago. Guardians pitcher Shane Bieber was on the cusp of another shutout inning when the misplay from Zunino came back to bite Cleveland big time. The White Sox would go on to score six runs in the inning, all but handing the Guardians the loss and Bieber an unnecessarily ugly final line. The interference from Zunino was the juncture point in the timeline of the game which altered the result in favor of Chicago. Even though the Guardians were making Lance Lynn look significantly better than what he is at this point in his career, a 0-0 game is manageable while a 6-0 deficit is not.
The issue with the defensive miscues from Zunino is that it would be forgiveable if he was the force at the plate the Guardians hoped they were getting in free agency. So far Zunino has been almost universally worse at the plate than his career average and that is a problem. Slashing .169/.281/.325 with two home runs and seven doubles, this has the makings of a Zunino dud season written all over it. At this point it really does not seem like a 20+ home run campaigin is in the cards for Cleveland's backstop and that is a big problem considering how this team is constructed.
Zunino behind the plate has been a disaster. The Cleveland backstop is tied for the most passed balls (4), is third in wild pitches (14), and has allowed the eighth-most stolen bases (24). Looking at how the Guardians options catchers faired last season to this season is a big eye-opener when it comes to their shortcomings behind the plate.
Stolen Bases Allowed
Austin Hedges (2022)
Luke Maile (2022)
The rate at which these negative outcomes are coming is alarming. The duo of Zunino and Cam Gallagher are on pace to shatter these numbers if they continue to play and that is a huge problem. Again, this would all be a bit more forgiveable if there were some sort of meaningful contributions at the plate, but there is simply not enough to justiify Zunino, or Gallagher for that matter.
With the Guardians in third place and not living up to the expectations thrust upon them for this season, there is not a margin for error which would make this more palatable. If Cleveland continues to struggle and not make up ground or even overtake the rest of the division (like they should), it would not be surprising to see the team bite the bullet and cut bait when it comes to Zunino.
Is the answer Bo Naylor? Possibly, the younger Naylor has been raking in Columbus and his time is coming sooner rather than later. But as this season continues to play out one thing is coming more and more clear, the answer is not Zunino, even on a one-year trial basis as this contract was constructed to be.
Change is coming one way or the other, hopefully with the intent on being better and not bottoming out and throwing in the towel on 2023. Whichever changes are made better include something behind the plate, because Zunino has been a tough watch all season long. Embarking on a new era at the catcher position is looking more and more like a necessity and not something that this team can just ease into later in the year.
With how things are going Zunino's days in Cleveland seemed numbered and that may be a good thing. All it takes is ripping off the band-aid and finding out what is behind door number two, a scenario which is 10,000 times more enticing than running out the same old, same old catching combo which has left a lot to be desired 40+ games into the season.
It is all going to come down to how and when the Guardians front office wants to act. Kick the can down the road some more and they could very well find themselves too far back for anything to make a meaningful difference. Too early can disrupt clubhouse chemistry and cause a team to unravel. It is a fine line to walk and no one should be envious of those tasked with making this decision.