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Prospect of the Day: Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners

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Mike Zunino
Mike Zunino

The Seattle Mariners promoted top catching prospect Mike Zunino to the major league roster this week, a move which sparked a great deal of controversy (to put it mildly) among Mariners fans. A large contingent are convinced that Zunino isn't ready and that the decision reeks of front office desperation. We'll get to that in a moment, but let's look first at Zunino's merits (and weaknesses) as today's Prospect of the Day.

Zunino was well-known to scouts in high school and was considered a solid prospect growing up in Cape Coral, Florida. However, he was firmly committed to attending college and playing for the Florida Gators, so he dropped to the 29th round of the 2009 draft. He showed power as a freshman with nine homers and a .472 SLG, but his plate discipline was spotty (nine walks, 38 strikeouts in 176 at-bats) and he hit just .267.

He took a big step forward in 2010, getting a better idea of the zone, hitting .371/.442/.674 with 19 homers, 32 walks, and 52 strikeouts in 264 at-bats and positioning himself as an elite draft pick for 2012. He lived up to lofty expectations last spring with a .322/.394/.669, 19 homer season with 31 walks and 47 strikeouts in 245 at-bats, winning the Golden Spikes Award.

Keep in mind that his '11 and '12 campaigns were accomplished with the less-potent metal bats adopted by the NCAA: he wasn't putting up gaudy numbers in a cheap way. Combine the hitting with promising defense and strong makeup, and he was an obvious slot at the top of the draft, going third-overall and earning a $4,000,000 bonus. Zunino continued mashing after signing, hitting .373/.474/.736 in 29 games for short-season Everett, then .333/.386/.588 in a 15-game excursion to Double-A Jackson.

2013 has not gone as well: he's hit .238/.303/.503 in 47 games for Triple-A Tacoma before his promotion, knocking 11 homers but having issues with contact, with a 14/59 BB/K ratio in 208 plate appearances.

Zunino is a 6-2, 220 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born March 25, 1991. His best tools are power and simple strength. Like most catchers he is a slow runner, but he's agile for his size and has steadily refined his defensive skills. His arm strength is slightly above average and he was an effective deterrent to baserunners in college and the low minors; his kill percentage slipped down to 26 percent in Triple-A, but his blocking, receiving, and leadership abilities all draw praise.

He's had some problems with the bat this spring, showing a weakness against breaking balls and high fastballs and losing track of the strike zone at times for Tacoma. Although this problem wasn't an issue in A-ball or Double-A, more polished Triple-A pitchers have exposed this. This relates to a meme going around that I don't like, namely that Double-A is "better" than Triple-A in terms of pure talent and that the higher level can often be skipped, at least for elite prospects. I disagree with that, and Zunino is a good example of why I disagree with it. He's still got things to learn.

I don't think Zunino's problems are fatal or even particularly limiting for his medium and long-term outlook. He struggled with exactly the same issues early in his college career, but he made the necessary adjustments and eventually thrived. His makeup is first class, and as long as he avoids injuries, I think the bat will be fine. He's not going to be a .300 hitter, but eventually he'll be very productive in the power and OBP departments.

Without some rapid adjustments, that won't be this year though. So, what are we to make of the promotion?

Having been a fan of a struggling franchise before (hey, growing up a Twins fan in the early 80s wasn't easy), I understand the psychology of panic, and frustration, and resignation. I still advise Mariners fans to calm down. That is easier said than done when you're sick of losing, but of all the things wrong with the franchise, I don't think pushing Zunino to the majors a little too quickly is at the very top of the list. He'll be fine defensively, and the bat should come around eventually. He's adapted before, and I think he'll do so again.