Future comes quick, remains bright for Zunino
Mariners' 2012 first-round pick makes strong first impression after rapid ascent
SEATTLE -- When the Mariners selected Mike Zunino with the third pick in the 2012 Draft, the Florida standout was targeted as the catcher of the future for a franchise that seemingly has been looking to fill its backstop role since Dan Wilson retired in 2005.
But what wasn't expected was that the future would come quite so quickly, with Zunino elevated to the Majors after just 96 games in the Minors and immediately installed as Seattle's starting catcher after Jesus Montero faltered and Jesus Sucre injured his hand.
Zunino, 22, wound up hitting just .214 in 52 games, but he was extremely impressive in the way he worked behind the plate and handled pitchers at such a young age. And it's worth noting that the Mariners went 25-23 in games Zunino started, compared to 46-68 without him in the lineup.
"It was all just a learning process," Zunino said before heading home to Florida for the offseason. "Getting an opportunity to play here was everything I dreamed of. Obviously you want to come out here and win, but you take the 50 or so games that I played and more for some of the other young guys and we just take it as a learning experience and knowing what we need to get ready for next year."
Zunino had a chance to get his feet wet last spring in his first Major League camp, but he was splitting time at that point with Montero, Sucre, Kelly Shoppach, Ronny Paulino and fellow rookie John Hicks. His real crash course with the big boys didn't begin until his promotion to Seattle on June 14, when he was thrust immediately into the lineup and handed the reins.
A broken hamate bone in his left hand cost him 34 games on the disabled list from July 26 to Sept. 1, but he recovered from that to catch 23 of the last 26 games.
"Obviously it'll be nice to go into Spring Training and be familiar with some guys," Zunino said, looking forward to February's return to Peoria, Ariz. "I think from there we can take another step and just continue to fine tune what they want to do and we can really work on stuff instead of just trying to learn what each other likes to do, whether it's calling the game or what they like to throw in certain counts. I think it's going to be a little more advanced going into spring next year."
Former manager Eric Wedge, himself a catcher in his playing days, appreciated Zunino's instant ability to handle pitchers.
"He's as good with that as any young catcher that I've been with and that's even as a player," Wedge said. "I spent a lot of time with Brad Ausmus when he was a younger player, John Flaherty when he was young. I was with Joe Girardi in Colorado for a year and he handled staffs so well. Those other two guys played for 15 years apiece.
"Zunino is the total package in regard to what you're looking for in that position," said Wedge. "He has some backbone to him, some strength of personality, he's a student of the game, there's an edge to him there. It's personal. That's one thing I always liked about Victor Martinez, if we lost, it was personal. That's what Mike has, and it's a great attitude to have."
Zunino has been a catcher since his days of youth ball in Cape Coral, Fla., and knows his No. 1 job is to help the pitchers succeed.
"If I can take care of them or help them out in any way, then we can get the best performance out of them," Zunino said. "If they feel comfortable and relaxed, that's when they're going to be their best."
But Zunino has the potential to be far more than just a defensive-minded catcher. The Mariners drafted him because of his all-around ability after he hit .348 with 38 home runs and 134 RBIs in 138 games in his final two seasons at Florida.
After batting .227 in his first month in the Majors, Zunino hit .255 in 16 games in July before breaking the bone in his hand. When he came back from the DL, he batted .176 in September, though again he was heating up at the end as he went 5-for-18 (.278) with two home runs in his final five games.
"The first month or so, getting used to it was an adjustment," Zunino acknowledged. "But I felt for a good week and a half or two weeks before I got hurt, I was swinging the bat well. Unfortunately I got hurt a little bit.
"Then the last homestand, the last week or so, I was seeing pitches and having a lot better at-bats. So it was one of those things where it's rewarding knowing you can have good at-bats and hit up here. Now I'm just looking to do it from Day 1 next year."