The Rays will be without two key players for the rest of the season. Manager Kevin Cash told reporters (including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and Joe Trezza of MLB.com) that center fielder Kevin Kiermaier has elected to undergo surgery to address a labrum issue with his left hip. Catcher Mike Zunino is also done for the year, as Topkin reports (on Twitter) he’ll need surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Cash said Kiermaier is expected to be ready for next Spring Training; the longer-term timetable for Zunino remains unclear.
Both Kiermaier and Zunino were already on the 60-day injured list. Kiermaier was initially diagnosed with hip inflammation, while Zunino’s problem was first termed left shoulder inflammation. The team quickly thereafter revealed Zunino may be battling thoracic outlet syndrome, however. He received Botox treatment in hopes of remedying the issue without going under the knife, but that evidently proved unsuccessful. Thoracic outlet surgery has become fairly prevalent for pitchers, with hurlers like Stephen Strasburg, John King, Brendan McKay and Daulton Jefferies requiring the procedure within the past year. It’s been far less common an occurrence for position players.
Kiermaier and Zunino were known to be facing lengthy recovery processes even before today’s news, so there was already a fair bit of urgency for the club to address the vacated center field and catching positions. Tampa Bay already added help in the latter area, bringing in Christian Bethancourt in a deal with the A’s. Neither Bethancourt nor incumbent Francisco Mejía has performed so well the Rays should rule out further upgrades behind the dish, although the market is fairly shallow. Willson Contreras is one of the game’s most obvious trade candidates, but the Cubs will have plenty of interest around the league in perhaps the top rental bat on the market. Bethancourt’s former teammate, Sean Murphy, is drawing attention as a controllable option, although the acquisition cost for three and a half seasons of his services would be even more substantial than the haul required to land Contreras.
Oakland also has one of the better center fielders who could be available, with Ramón Laureano having three-plus seasons of remaining club control. Beyond Laureano, it’s a murky market there as well, with Bryan Reynolds and Cedric Mullins seemingly unlikely to move. The Royals could market Michael A. Taylor to capitalize on perhaps the best season of his career, while the Nationals may be willing to part with Víctor Robles amidst another down year. The Rays are also without Harold Ramírez and Manuel Margot due to injury, leaving them to rely on Josh Lowe and Brett Phillips — neither of whom is doing much at the plate — alongside Randy Arozarena in the outfield.
The deadline outlook will be the most immediate concern for the Tampa Bay front office, but the longer-term ramifications of today’s news could be the end of Kiermaier’s and Zunino’s tenures in Tampa Bay. Each is in the final guaranteed year of his respective contract. The Rays hold a $13MM option on Kiermaier’s services for 2023, but it’s hard to envision the club bringing him back at that sum. The lefty-hitting outfielder had a modest .228/.281/.369 showing over 221 plate appearances on the season. Between his age (32) and another significant lower body injury, one may wonder how much longer he’ll remain one of the sport’s best defensive outfielders.
Zunino, meanwhile, will hit the market coming off one of the more disappointing years of his career. He popped 33 home runs a season ago, leading the Rays to bring him back on a $7MM option. He managed only a .145/.198/.304 showing in 36 games this year. The 31-year-old is among the sport’s top defensive backstops, but the combination of his woeful 2022 numbers and the TOS procedure deals a tough blow to his stock as he heads towards free agency.