Catching up: Zunino gives Guardians upgrade, better bat

CLEVELAND (AP) — The Guardians don’t need Mike Zunino to be an All-Star, though they wouldn’t mind if he became one again.

Cleveland needs him to hit and deepen its lineup, and Zunio has shown he’s qualified.

The AL Central champions upgraded an offensive void on Thursday by signing Zunino to a $6 million, one-year contract. The 31-year-old hit a career-high 33 home runs for Tampa Bay in 2021, and the Guardians are confident he can provide some extra power for a team that hit just 127 homers last season.

Zunino is also a solid defensive player, a prerequisite for a team built around its pitching staff.

“The fact that he is such a good defender, works with the pitching staff so well,” Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonett said. “In our view, he’s not too far removed from a really productive offensive season in 2021, so we think we’ve improved in that spot and we’re excited to have him in the fold.”

Cleveland entered the offseason looking to improve its catching situation — mainly from an offensive standpoint. Austin Hedges and Luke Maile were both solid receivers, but didn’t do much with the bat.

While Hedges was an invaluable clubhouse leader and strong defensively as Cleveland’s primary starter, he batted just .163 in 105 games. Maile hit .221 in 76 games.

Despite being the major’s youngest teams, the Guardians won the AL Central by placing a premium on quality at-bats, making contact and getting on base, by any means necessary.

It’s a different approach in this swing-or-strike out era, and Zunino is eager to join in on the fun.

“It’s exciting, the speed dynamic in the lineup is really enticing,” he said. “It’s just different ways to effect games. I think there’s a reason why you’ve seen the success they had last year and growing from that. With these young guys continuing to get confident, it’s only going to get better.”

Zunino’s signing follows the Guardians locking up slugger Josh Bell, who has 130 homers in seven seasons and will bolster the middle of Cleveland’s order.

Zunino played in just 36 games in 2022 before undergoing surgery thoracic outlet syndrome in his left arm. It’s a condition that causes numbness in the affected extremity, and in this case to Zunino’s non-throwing arm.

He’s been recovering and has progressed the point that he’s hitting off a tee. Zunino hasn’t faced live pitching yet, and is currently focused on strengthening his core muscles as he builds back.

“There’s a lot that goes into swings, whether it’s obliques, whether it’s a bunch of things,” he said. “So, building some reps when I challenge myself and get to that point, I’ll be good to go. I’ve been symptom-free, gaining strength, mobility has been great. So I’ve been able to continue what would be a normal offseason for me.”

As long as he’s healthy, Zunino will be Cleveland’s starter while 22-year-old Bo Naylor continues to gain experience. Naylor caught at Double- and Triple-A before joining the Guardians late last season.

Zunino did his research on the Guardians before signing, and said one of the selling points for him was a chance to work with coach Sandy Alomar Jr., a six-time All-Star catcher for Cleveland.

“He’s a guy when you come in and the first thing people are saying, ‘Have you talked to Sandy yet?’ ‘Have you met Sandy?’ because they speak so highly of him,” Zunino said. “So, I’m excited to get to work with him, continue to work on my craft and have a fresh set of eyes on me to make some adjustments and continue to grow as a player.”

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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