Less than a year after starting his professional career with the Class A short-season Everett AquaSox, catcher Mike Zunino was called up by the Seattle Mariners before Tuesday night’s major league game against Houston. Zunino was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft.
Zunino, who started his 2012 season with the AquaSox before being promoted to Class AA Jackson and then to the Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, flew from Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon and was at the ballpark and available for Tuesday night’s game. Zunino had gone to Las Vegas with Tacoma, which was playing a game there.
“You look at his path and what we saw all spring, what we know he’s doing down at Triple-A, we thought it was a good time to start his big-league career,” Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s so comfortable in his own skin. He handles everything very well. He’s a complete player. We felt like it was time for him to take the next challenge. We feel like he’s going to be our guy of the future.”
Zunino, a University of Florida product, was hitting .238 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI in 47 games with the Rainiers. He had a .503 slugging percentage and a .303 on-base percentage.
In 2012, Zunino spent 29 games with the AquaSox, where he batted .373 with 10 homers, 35 RBI, 29 runs scored and a .736 slugging percentage. He was quickly promoted to Jackson where he continued his strong season.
“The first thing you think of obviously is just the short period of time he’s been in the minor leagues,” Wedge said. “But he’s shown himself differently than most. You just have to think it through and trust in the player, and what you know in the player, and know that we’ll take care of him up here.”
Zunino got a call from Chris Gwynn, Seattle’s director of player development, Tuesday morning around 11 a.m. Gwynn playfully asked Zunino why he thought Gwynn was calling him.
“I said, ‘Well I can think of two things.’ He goes, ‘Well I think it’s probably the better of the two,’” Zunino said. “It was something I wasn’t expecting. I still don’t think it has (sunk in).”
By 1:30 p.m. he was on an airplane bound for Seattle.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said the M’s don’t necessarily see Zunino as the savior of the team, which was 28-37 going into Tuesday night’s game. He just wants to see what the catching prospect can do at the major-league level.
“We were all impressed with what he did in spring training. I don’t think anybody here is expecting miracles,” Zduriencik said. “We’re not looking like he’s the answer. We’re just looking as we put this together and where we’re at right now. We know he’s going to be a guy that is count on going forward and it’s the right thing to do at this time for him. So, we’ll bring him up here, give him a chance to play and see how it works out.”
Zunino, who entered the season as the top prospect in the Mariners’ organization, is the sixth player from the 2012 draft to reach the majors, but he is the first position player to make the jump. The first five to be promoted were pitchers.
“He’s a student of the game. He asks good questions, he sees the game well,” Wedge said. “He’s still young, still learning, but you have to like that part. Especially at that position.”
Injuries at the catching position contributed to Zunino’s early call-up. Last week, Wedge told reporters that Seattle didn’t want to rush Zunino’s development at Tacoma. But injuries to Jesus Montero and Jesus Sucre left veteran Kelly Shoppach as the lone healthy catcher on the Mariners roster.
Seattle called up Brandon Bantz, Zunino’s backup at Tacoma, last week with Bantz making his major-league debut on Saturday. Bantz was designated for assignment on Tuesday to make room for Zunino on the 40-man roster.
“We had a little bit of a later target date (for Zunino), but when you look at it we had an injury right now, there’s no harm in bringing him up,” Zduriencik said. “Let’s see where we’re at. The move we made prior to this, we thought Sucre was going to be out for just a couple days and we were looking for short-term coverage. … Now that I think Sucre is going to be out a little longer, that predicated us looking at Zunino right now.”
Zunino took batting practice before the game in front of several of Seattle’s most recent draft picks, including 2013 first-round pick DJ Peterson, who the M’s selected at No. 12 overall.
“It’s crazy seeing draft picks here at batting practice like I was a year ago,” Zunino said. “To sort of feel like you’re hitting as part of the Mariners is something unreal to me. It’s something where I’m going to continue to work hard and try to do my best and hopefully bring a hard-nosed attitude to the team and sort of help this team go.”
With Sucre being moved to the 15-day disabled list with a left wrist bone contusion, Wedge said Zunino will “get regular time” in the lineup, but wasn’t initially sure exactly how much the newest Mariner will play. He said that will be contingent, in part, on Zunino.
“Some of that will depend on him,” Wedge said. “He doesn’t have to come up here and play every day. That’s not something he has to do. But he’s going to play and play consistently. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Wedge said it remained to be seen what would happen with Zunino when Sucre was ready to come back. Sucre is eligible to return from the DL on June 21.
“We don’t know. We’ll see. I can’t predict the future,” Wedge said. “We’ll see how he does when he gets up here and go from there.
“The priority is first and foremost behind the plate, handling the staff, leadership, the presence that (Zunino) has. The bat will take care of itself in time. He’s going to be a pretty good hitter. How good I don’t know. But what he is going to be is he’s going to be a very good complete all-around ballplayer. And that we feel pretty confident about.”
For his part, Zunino thinks he’s ready to go.
“All I can do is go out there and play the best ball I can,” Zunino said. “If I can help the team win in any way then I think that’s being ready. So that’s what I’m just going to try to do.”
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