Prospect Smackdown, Battle of the Catchers: Mike Zunino vs. Travis D'Arnaud
The best catching prospect in baseball is either Mike Zunino of the Seattle Mariners, or Travis D'Arnaud of the New York Mets. This is an epic smackdown. . .Napoleon against Wellington. . .Yamamoto against Nimitz. . . Peanut Butter versus Chocolate. . .Alien versus. Predator. Let's take a look at this Battle of the Backstops.
BACKGROUND AND INTANGIBLES
D'Arnaud: Travis D'Arnaud was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the supplemental first round in 2007, from high school in Lakewood, California, signing for $837,500. He comes from a baseball family, his brother Chase being a major league player. Emerging quickly as a top talent, Travis has been the key prospect in two large trades, going from Philly to Toronto in the 2009 Roy Halladay trade, then from Toronto to the Mets in the R.A Dickey trade. His makeup and leadership skills are considered very strong.
Zunino: Zunino was a 29th round pick in 2009 from high school in Cape Coral, Florida, but did not sign with the Athletics and went to the University of Florida. He had an outstanding college career for the Gators, winning the Golden Spikes Award in 2012 and moving up to the first round of the 2012 draft, third overall, signing for $4,000,000. He comes from a baseball family, with his father Greg being a long-time scout. His makeup and leadership skills are considered very strong.
Comparison: This looks even to me and is pretty much a matter of taste. Both players have baseball in their blood. One signed out of high school and became notable quickly in pro ball, the other went to college and starred for a major program.
TOOLS, PHYSICALITY, AND HEALTH
D'Arnaud: D'arnaud is a 6-2, 195 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born February 10, 1989. Scouts like his bat, seeing him as possessing a good balance of pure hitting skills and power. His plate discipline is mediocre and he can be impatient, but many scouts don't see this as a serious flaw in his game due to his better-than-average bat speed, which helps him compensate. On defense, he features very good mobility and receiving skills, with slightly above average arm strength. He has had his share of significant injuries, including a back injury, a concussion, a torn thumb ligament, and a torn knee ligament than ended his 2012 season early. His speed is below average but that is normal for a catcher.
Zunino: Zunino is a 6-2, 220-pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born March 25, 1991. His best offensive tool is power, but he's got decent pure hitting skills and showed very good plate discipline in college and (so far) in pro ball. Zunino's arm is average in strength but his transfer and release are rapid and help his arm play up. He has good mobility for a bigger guy, but his receiving skills need more polish and he's currently somewhat vulnerable to passed balls. He has avoided significant injuries. His speed is below average but that is normal for a catcher.
Comparison: D'Arnaud's pure athletic tools are slightly better than Zunino's. Their raw power is very similar. Some scouts think D'Arnaud's feel for hitting is slightly better, but Zunino is no slouch and has better strike zone judgment. Zunino has a better health record to this point, granted there's a difference between a college and pro workload. D'Arnaud's arm is stronger, but Zunino is more effective at throwing out baserunners due to better throwing mechanics. D'Arnaud is a better receiver.
D'Arnaud: D'Arnaud hit .333/.380/.595 for Triple-A Las Vegas last year and .311/.371/.542 for Double-A New Hampshire the year before. Both home parks favored power hitting, but he did well on the road too. He threw out 30% of stealers last year, a career-best.
Zunino: Zunino hit .373/.474/.736 in 29 games for short-season Everett last summer, then .333/.386/.588 in 15 games for Double-A Jackson, followed by a .288/.337/.463 mark in the Arizona Fall League. He threw out 43% of runners in his debut.
Comparison: D'Arnaud has a longer pro track record, of course, and has mashed the last two seasons, but Zunino was a force in college and has performed well in his Mariners time thus far. Zunino has been better against runners in his smaller sample, but D'Arnaud has much lower passed ball and error rates to this point, fitting the scouting reports about better receiving skills.
D'Arnaud: D'Arnaud projects as a long-term everyday catcher with impressive receiving and leadership skills and adequate ability against baserunners. He's expected to hit for above-average power, but his OBP may be very dependent on his batting average, given his indifferent walk rates. He is a career .286/.343/.474 hitter in the minors, and his peak major league numbers could be very much like that.
Zunino: Zunino projects as a long-term everyday catcher with adequate receiving skills, along with impressive field leadership and ability against baserunners. He's expected to hit for above-average power, with good plate discipline helping to enhance his OBP even in years when his batting average slides a bit. He is two years younger than D'Arnaud.
Comparison: Both players have the ability to be All-Star catchers who contribute both offensively and defensively, if in slightly different ways.
D'Arnaud and Zunino are the two best catching prospects in baseball. Overall, I prefer Zunino very slightly, mostly because he is two years younger and has more time on the development curve.