So you already know the Mariners promoted Mike Zunino from Tacoma. On the off chance you didn’t, I suppose this is a pretty casual way of breaking the news. Zunino arrived yesterday afternoon and it shouldn’t be long now before he makes his big-league debut. It’s exciting, because Zunino is a top prospect, and therefore this is another chance to see a top prospect blossom and drive home the point that the Mariners might actually be going somewhere. It’s easy to assume they’re lost and going in circles, given what’s happened with Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, and Dustin Ackley. Zunino could indicate direction.
Dave’s written about the move twice. It’s curious because of the timing. Zunino, at one point, was lighting the PCL on fire, but that was a while ago, and a lot of secondary pitches ago. Offensively, he’s been in an extended slump, and now he’s been given a promotion to a more challenging level. Now, in the past, the Mariners have talked about how they wanted to see a prospect dominate his level before promoting him. That’s an organizational statement, and Zunino most certainly hasn’t dominated Triple-A. But, that was Chris Gwynn talking, and Chris Gwynn doesn’t make the decisions. He only participates in the chat, and sometimes people might get overruled.
There was a quote from Jack Zduriencik. I spent an hour looking for it before giving up. I took that long because I wanted to copy and paste his exact words, and now I’m frustrated, but I don’t know what else to do. Somewhere over the past few weeks, Zduriencik said he wouldn’t deviate from the long-term organizational plan in response to short-term big-league roster needs. That is, he wouldn’t rush a prospect before his time just because the big club had a hole. This is the best I can do, and it’s from Eric Wedge, and it’s only a half-decent approximation:
“He’s where he needs to be right now,” Wedge said of Franklin. “He’s a young player. Needs to keep playing every day. It’s not just about hitting; it’s about every aspect of the game. We want him to be the most complete player he can be when he does get his opportunity.”
Zunino’s promotion is a response to a major-league need, for a catcher who isn’t whoever Brandon Bantz is. The Mariners have admitted that, and Zduriencik has admitted that Zunino’s timeline was sped up. This seems to be in direct opposition to what Zduriencik said earlier, and I wish so badly I could track that quote down. I guess you’ll just have to take it on faith. I swear it was there, unless I was dreaming a really ordinary dream.
In the past, the Mariners have suggested it was potentially dangerous to promote a prospect too soon. They claimed to have a policy against that, but they’ve hurried up some guys and Zunino is the latest. Of course every prospect should be treated on a case-by-case basis, but it’s not like the Mariners are claiming that Zunino is ready — they’ve acknowledged that he’s a work in progress. So there’s an inconsistency here, where either the Mariners think this is dangerous or they don’t. Jack Zduriencik:
“But when you look at we had an injury right now, there’s no harm in bringing him up. Let’s see where we’re at.”
“No harm.” If there’s no harm in rushing Zunino, what’s the harm in rushing anybody? What’s an acceptable degree of rushing? What would be too aggressive a rush? Brandon Maurer was promoted straight from Double-A. Zunino came from Triple-A, but he was struggling. Would the Mariners promote a position player from Double-A? Would they promote a guy from Single-A? What is the function of the minor leagues, and what is the function of the bigs?
I don’t really have a position here, because like with so many things, I don’t know enough. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know how much it matters when a prospect comes up too early. We don’t know what this could mean for Zunino’s future, or for anyone’s future, and as easy as it would be to suggest that struggles could be a career setback, one could alternatively claim that Zunino won’t learn to hit big leaguers against minor leaguers. To learn to beat the best you have to face the best, right? Where are the best, if not in the major leagues? Zunino’s career hasn’t been destroyed, presumably, by an aggressive promotion. We don’t even know if he’ll still be around once Jesus Sucre is healthy. Struggles could mean a demotion right back to Tacoma, and while one can’t ignore the fact that now Zunino is occupying a 40-man roster spot, that was going to happen soon regardless, and the roster casualty won’t be a great player.
So, in the big picture, this is a move I wouldn’t have made that I also don’t think is a horrible mistake. Zunino is one of the two best catchers in the organization right now, and they’ve decided he’s mature enough to handle the stress and the challenge. Defensively, he’s fine, and he’ll learn, and maybe he’ll run into a pitch or two. What’s most interesting to me is the thinking. According to the Mariners, Bantz came up under the assumption that Sucre was a day-to-day thing, but once Sucre went on the DL, the team had to think longer-term. I don’t understand why Bantz couldn’t have just screwed around for a couple weeks, since, whatever. Bantz isn’t a big-league ballplayer, but the Mariners are hardly a big-league ballclub. But suppose Wedge wanted better than that. Why not go get one of the discarded veteran backstops? Why not grab Chris Snyder or John Baker, or why not call up Jason Jaramillo since he’s somewhat experienced and a complete non-prospect? You might say it’s not that easy to swing a transaction. I’d counter that it can be, especially when you’re talking about nothing catchers that other teams don’t want. The Mariners made a conscious decision not to go that route. They chose, in this case, to speed up a prospect’s timeline, even though in the past they’ve said they didn’t want to do that.
That’s what makes this most interesting to me. That’s a part of why Dave sees this as an attempt to save jobs. If the Mariners got by with John Baker, no one would care. If Zunino impresses, well, Zunino was a Zduriencik get, and that would reflect well on the state of the system. Of course, if Zunino struggles, that won’t accomplish anything, but the Mariners could say it was a temporary response to a need, and then they’d have a better idea of what Zunino needs to work on. The downside here isn’t enormous, assuming Zunino isn’t prone to crippling self-doubt.
I don’t understand the inconsistency, is all. I don’t think Zunino is ready, and I don’t think he’ll be badly hurt by a bit of a slump against advanced competition. He’s a leadership sort, he’ll survive. What do the Mariners actually believe? Under what circumstances are they willing to compromise their beliefs? What we know is that Zunino is only up because of a desperate situation. What we don’t know is the extent of that desperation.