Let’s Talk About Mike Zunino
When the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino back in June, it was considered to be the right pick mostly because it was the safe pick. Zunino was touted as a high floor prospect with minimal risks – he projected as a legitimate catcher with some power, and his work ethic suggested he might be able to get to the Majors pretty quickly. There were questions about his offensive upside, though. Would he hit for average? Was the power going to be more than just good for the position? The lack of any one prominent tool kept scouts from being too effusive in their praise, and so he ended up being cast as a good, safe, low-risk selection.
Then he signed his pro contract and was assigned to Everett, where he showed himself to be the best hitter in the Northwest League by a mile, posting a ridiculous 235 wRC+ in his time there. But, it was short season ball for a guy who had three years of SEC experience, and Everett’s a pretty nice place to hit, and his overall line was inflated by a .413 BABIP, and it was just 133 plate appearances. It was a great performance, but there were enough caveats there to keep the enthusiasm in check.
Then, the Mariners promoted him to Double-A Jackson to finish the season. Including the first four games of the playoffs, he’s put up a 204 wRC+ in 75 trips to the plate – the only other player to hit better in the Southern League this year was a 24-year-old outfielder who was repeating the level, and needed a .471 BABIP to do it. Now, it’s getting harder to come up with caveats. At 21-years-old, he’s actually younger than most of his competition at this level, and very few college players can go straight to Double-A and dominate within months of being drafted. Jackson’s not a huge hitter’s park. His BABIP has mostly normalized, and now sits at a not-totally-crazy .336. Compared to his Everett numbers, his strikeout rate is actually down and his power is up, meaning that while the wRC+ might not be quite as high, he’s probably hit better in Jackson than he did in Everett.
There’s still the sample size issue, as Zunino’s professional career still spans just 200 plate appearances, but there’s some evidence now to suggest that Zunino was just underrated in the draft. And with every passing day where he destroys quality pitching in Double-A, the talk about whether Zunino could actually break camp with the Mariners next year gets a little bit louder.
That’s still a longshot at best. For one, the Mariners don’t really need to rush Zunino, given that John Jaso has shown enough this year to justify a larger role in 2013, and the team could use the start of next year to evaluate whether Jaso can be the everyday catcher against right-handed pitching. If he can, that’s a pretty nice asset to have, even with Zunino is breathing down his neck. This isn’t a scenario where the Mariners have a huge gaping hole that needs to be patched. Jaso has earned an extended look behind the plate, and gathering more information about his abilities as a regular catcher is in the organization’s best interests.
Beyond that, there’s also the fact that putting Zunino on the opening day roster next spring would essentially be unprecedented. If we give Zunino credit for approximately 100 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League, he’ll go into next spring with about 300 professional PAs under his belt. For reference, Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, and Yasmani Grandal — the three best college catching prospects to come out of the draft in recent years — all got ~700 minor league plate appearances before they were called up.
To find a catcher who was drafted out of college and got to the Majors with essentially a half season of pro experience, you have to go back to Thurman Munson in 1969. The Yankees took him with the fourth overall pick out of Kent State in 1968, then had him finish the season in Double-A, where he was the league’s best hitter. Due to military commitments related to the Vietnam War, he only got 115 plate appearances in Triple-A during the first four month of the season before the Yankees called him up in August. He played sparingly and eventually was sent back down to rejoin Triple-A Syracuse for their playoff run and didn’t grab a regular job with New York until 1970, when he posted a +5.4 WAR season and was the Rookie of the Year.
In terms of pro experience, Munson didn’t have much more than Zunino will have next spring when he was named the Yankees starting catcher, but we’re talking one example from 40 years ago, and Munson didn’t even grab the job the spring after getting drafted. Guys just don’t go from catching in the College World Series one summer to starting in the big leagues the next spring.
In reality, it makes sense for Zunino to begin the 2013 season in Tacoma. The organization can give him more time to develop, let him face another level of advanced pitching, delay his free agency by a year, and give John Jaso a real shot to show what he can do as a regular catcher simply by not pushing Zunino in a historically unique way. If he destroys the PCL for the first few months of 2013, then the team can start to make plans to open up the catching job for him. Besides, as we saw with Danny Hultzen this year, a high draft position and supposed polish from playing college ball doesn’t mean that a guy has nothing to learn in Triple-A. A few months in Tacoma for Zunino is in everyone’s best interests.
But, the reality is that Zunino has forced himself into the team’s 2013 plans. Rather than spending money on a better Miguel Olivo replacement to share time with Jaso behind the plate, the team is probably better off getting a more traditional back-up catcher who can be easily discarded if Zunino forces his way onto the roster by next summer. Zunino’s ascent has basically ended any need to continue with the “Jesus Montero is a catcher” charade, and the club can move forward with him as either a first baseman or designated hitter next year. And, while Montero, Dustin Ackley, and Justin Smoak are reminders that prospect status and offensive performance in the minors doesn’t always translate to immediate big league success, the bar for quality offense from a catcher isn’t all that high, and Zunino’s overall package of skills suggests that he’s probably going to be a pretty good Major League player pretty soon.
Zunino is worth getting excited about. If I had to bet, I would put money on him taking the team’s starting catching job at some point next year, and being an above average Major League catcher by 2014. For me, Zunino is the organization’s best prospect, a better blend of risk and reward than any of the pitching prospects and easily projecting as the best position player on the farm. He’s a better prospect than Justin Smoak ever was, and he’s destroying anything Dustin Ackley ever did in the minors. It’s still early, and more exposure to higher level pitching could shine a spotlight on issues we’re not currently aware of, but it’s hard to find too many flaws with Zunino right now. The defensive skills to stay behind the plate are there. The work ethic is there. The power is there. The plate discipline and contact skills appear to be better than advertised.
Don’t count on Mike Zunino breaking camp with the Mariners next spring. That’s likely too aggressive, and the organization doesn’t have to push him. But given what he’s done in Everett and is doing in Jackson, don’t be surprised if Zunino turns out to be better than that high floor/moderate ceiling “safe pick” we were told the team was getting back in June. Right now, Zunino looks like a potential star in the making.