Mike Zunino: Catcher, Mariners First-Round Pick
With the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Seattle Mariners selected C Mike Zunino out of University of Florida. Incidentally, Zunino also went to Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Florida. I found this out some months ago and thought about it at the time, but of course I couldn’t have known then that we’d have the added weirdness of him being picked by the Mariners. Now I know that he did, well, gosh, I hope that his old high school gear still sort of fits, but that sure seems unlikely.
The comparisons that some have made, reflecting back on the 2005 draft, is between Zunino and Jeff Clement. This is a lazy way of going about things. For one, Clement was more about the power bat back then, holding the career high school home run record at the national level. If injuries hadn’t derailed him, we might have seen more of that. Second is that much of the talk at the time about Clement pertained to the fact that he had improved his work behind the plate a lot, which is a roundabout way of saying that, for the time, it wasn’t great. Maybe it was even not-good.
There aren’t really any complaints about Zunino’s catching ability, seeing as how he’s been voted to the All-SEC Defensive team twice. He gets up quickly, throws well, doesn’t have too many issues with how his skills show back there. This is all interesting to me in that he hasn’t been a career catcher all the way through. He started to play there when he was eleven, but was a shortstop back in his freshman year in high school just because that was what the team needed. He’s not exactly up there with the elite defensive catchers of baseball history, but he’s proficient at what he does and proficiency behind the plate seems harder to come by these days. In this case, Zunino couples that with good leadership grades and the ability to handle a pitching staff. Zunino was able to call his own games this season, which doesn’t seem like all that much, but it’s rather uncommon for college baseball.
I’ve watched a little bit of Zunino at the plate, and he seems to stand a little bit crouched in there. There’s a cut to his swing, but at the same time he manages to adjust to the pitched ball pretty well. The scouting type people seem to give him above-average grades on both hitting and power, and again, those aren’t easy to come by from solid defensive catchers. Just like from the defensive side, he was first team ALL-SEC and was their Player of the Year last year while being named a finalist for the Johnny Bench award. Among the categories he led the conference in last season: total bases, hits, runs, doubles (tied), and home runs. The numbers this year haven’t been as eye-popping, but as Jeff Sullivan pointed out, pull up College Splits and adjust for park and schedule and suddenly he has the fourth-best adjusted OPS/wOBA in the country. All the while, he had a .311 BABIP, which is almost a hundred points lower than it was last season. When the balls fell in for him, they had usually gone pretty far.
We’ve talked before about how the M’s front office really does their homework with their picks. That’s true of Zunino on a whole different level, as it’s been reported that Zduriencik has known Zunino’s dad for decades since Zunino’s dad is a scout. This was the information that linked the two camps in the pre-season and I guess that with Buxton and Correa both out, they went with the guy they trusted.
The larger question for me at this point is how the organization’s catching depth is implicated in this. In the same sense that Rendon last year likely would have trumped the assorted internal options we had at the hot corner, Zunino trumps all of the backstops we have, a large portion of which were drafted recently. Most of those guys came with defensive questions that Zunino just doesn’t have. As raw power goes, Marlette might still have more, but his hitting skills aren’t nearly as refined and the expected timetable for Zunino would render that an afterthought anyway. What the Mariners will probably find themselves doing in the short-term is trying to find a way to trade from that depth and moving Marder to utility. The first move may be to send Jaso elsewhere within the next year or so.
That’s the story for now. It’s a solid pick, not what some of us hoped, but there was a sizeable dropoff from the two prep hitters to whoever was next and Zunino is hopefully a franchise catcher. Now to get stronger in the outfield on day two. Hopefully.