Mike Zunino Apparently Passes Chance Ruffin
On August 17, 2011, Chance Ruffin threw pitches as a member of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen. On that same date, Mike Zunino was still several months away from being drafted and becoming a professional baseball player. Let’s say someone would’ve asked you on August 17, 2011 which player — between Ruffin and Zunino — would be closer to the major leagues in March 2013. Your first response would be “that’s a weird and oddly specific question.” Your second response would be “Ruffin, of course”, because Ruffin was already in the majors, of course. He was a highly-drafted reliever with little left to prove. Zunino was a collegiate backstop.
Well as it happens, right now is March 2013, and Ruffin ain’t closer to the major leagues than Zunino is. Quite the opposite, in fact, at least according to recent reports. According to Mike Curto, Ruffin is being transitioned into a starter, and he’s probably going to open in Double-A. Meanwhile, according to Wednesday reports, Zunino is going to open in Triple-A Tacoma. The latter has been suspected for a while. The former is brand new.
We’ll look at Ruffin first. These days Ruffin is easily forgotten about, but he’s still on the 40-man roster, and he’s only 24 years old. Though he reported to big-league camp, he was cut pretty quickly, so he was never in serious competition for a Mariners bullpen role. Given that the Mariners are presumably about to give Casper Wells away to someone, Ruffin is of present-day interest with regard to desperately trying to salvage the Doug Fister deal.
For Ruffin, 2011 was a success, because he made it to the majors. But 2012 was a letdown, because he stayed in the minors and was bad. Where the year before he struck out 29% of batters, in 2012 he struck out 17% of batters, and his walk rate went up too. That Ruffin remains on the roster is an indication that he isn’t off the organizational radar completely, but his day job’s about to change.
This is a weird one. Generally, it’s highly-successful relievers who get shots at starting, and it’s unsuccessful starters who get shots at relieving. Ruffin is an unsuccessful reliever getting a shot to start, which he hasn’t done since early in college. I haven’t yet heard an organizational explanation, and I’m sure they have legitimate reasons for this, but it seems to me like it’s mostly about a change, a jolt. Maybe starting will force Ruffin to polish his mechanics and focus on further development of his secondary stuff. Maybe the Mariners just want to see what Ruffin can do with his three-pitch repertoire, since relieving seems to have stagnated. The Mariners selected Ruffin from the Tigers because they liked his arm; this could be a last shot to squeeze something out of his arm before giving up on it.
I don’t recall hearing about Ruffin as a potential starter when the Mariners got him, so I don’t think this was in the cards from the beginning. I think this is a response to observations, and for whatever it’s worth, this is hardly encouraging:
#Mariners RHP Chance Ruffin 88-91, T92 with a slurvy mid-70s breaking ball. Iffy arm speed. Not the power guy that was drafted out of Texas.
— Jason Cole (@LoneStarDugout) March 21, 2013
Of course, that’s one guy watching Ruffin on one day in spring training. But as a starter, Ruffin’s fastball stands to hover around 90-91. His strength has always been his breaking ball, but as a starter, he’ll also need to rely on a presently unimpressive changeup. In terms of further analysis, I don’t have anything. I don’t know how this is going to go, and I don’t actually know why this has been decided on in the first place. It’s unusual, but at the end of the day, if it fails, is it going to matter? How many of you were still thinking about Chance Ruffin as a part of the future? And if it fails, Ruffin could always try relieving again. Maybe by that point he wouldn’t be with the Mariners anymore. Maybe Ruffin takes quite the liking to being a starter and excels. The ultimate point: the Mariners are doing something unusual with a pitcher you haven’t been thinking about lately. At least, now, you’re thinking about him.
This brings us to the Zunino news. It’s been evident from the start that the Mariners have had Zunino on the fast track, and now he’ll open the season one step — or several miles — away from Seattle. The Rainiers, as a consequence, are going to be a very interesting minor-league baseball team. But the composition of the Rainiers could and will change, and it might not be long before Zunino earns himself another promotion.
Which isn’t to suggest we all ought to get ahead of ourselves and assume Zunino’s big-league career. But he’s the closest he’s been, and the guy standing in his way in the majors is Jesus Montero. Zunino’s going to learn some stuff in Tacoma, from Ronny Paulino and from others. But if he hits and if he fields, he should be in position to learn some stuff from Eric Wedge.
With regard to Zunino, people like to point to the Buster Posey timetable. Posey was drafted in 2008, and he became a big-league regular at the end of May 2010. In between, he racked up 172 games of minor-league experience. Zunino, at present, has 44 games of minor-league experience, not counting the AFL. He seems to be moving even faster than Posey did, and Posey moved unusually fast.
Is Zunino being moved too quickly? We can’t answer that, but there are a few things to consider. One, Mike Zunino isn’t Buster Posey, so how Posey was handled means only so much for Zunino’s handling. And two, look at Posey’s immediate impact. He had a .959 OPS at the All-Star break. The Giants were 25-22 before Posey debuted, then they went 22-19 leading into the break and got going in the second half. That year, the Giants won the World Series. Posey probably could’ve been promoted before he was, so just because he was still in the minors in April and May 2010 doesn’t mean he was still meaningfully developing. Posey might’ve been ready before the Giants made a move as if he were ready.
So Posey didn’t take long to get himself in big-league shape. The Mariners are counting on Zunino doing the same, and if he has a strong few months, he could conceivably be in Seattle around June or July. How would the Mariners make space, given their commitment to Montero behind the plate? It wouldn’t be hard — they could just trade the free-agent-to-be Kendrys Morales, freeing up DH. Morales is almost certain to get moved if he hits and if the Mariners don’t contend, and the Mariners don’t see Montero as a long-term catcher. Nobody does. So that could be abandoned as soon as Zunino provides a reason. That’s not the only way this could go, but it seems like the most likely.
We don’t know for sure that Mike Zunino is going to be a good big leaguer. We don’t know for sure that Mike Zunino is going to be a good Pacific Coast Leaguer. Don’t you ever take a prospect for granted. But everything’s been good with Zunino so far, and if things continue in that vein, it won’t be long before he’s handed the torch. The Mariners have designated Zunino as the catcher of the future. That future is sneaking up on us.