By John Boyle
Less than a week ago, Mariners manager Eric Wedge made it clear that they would not rush Mike Zunino to the big leagues because of a need, but rather only promote one of the organization’s top prospects when he’s good and ready.
Six days later, Zunino is on his way to Safeco Field to join the Mariners. The team hasn’t announced the move, which was first reported by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, but should do so once Zunino arrives (he had to fly in from Las Vegas, where the Rainiers have a game tonight).
So what gives? Why is Zunino, who less than a year ago made his professional debut with the Everett AquaSox, not ready one week, then making his major-league debut the next?
Well, for starters, things have changed a bit. It’s easy to look at this move and say it was one made in desperation by a manager and GM hoping to save their jobs, but whether there’s an element of that involved or not, the reality is that the Mariners need a catcher. Kelly Shoppach, who was signed to be a backup, didn’t just take over the starting role following Jesus Montero’s demotion, he is now taking on a big workload for any starting catcher, let alone one who expected to be a No. 2 catcher. That became the case when Jesus Sucre injured his wrist last week, an injury that at the time was thought to minor, costing him perhaps three or four days. The fact that Scure has since been placed on the DL changes things a bit. Brandon Bantz, who was called up last week, barely has any Triple-A experience and isn’t really ready to play a role at the big-league level, but he was fine as an emergency backup for a few days.
“We’re hoping it’s a three- or four-day deal, so that’s good news,” Wedge said of Sucre’s last week. “… It’s a temporary move, and good for (Bantz), he’s a big leaguer. We don’t want to disrupt anybody else down there right now.”
“Anybody else” was a reference to Zunino, who after a torrid start in Tacoma has cooled off and is now batting just .238, though despite a high strikeout rate, he is hitting for very good power with 11 home runs and 12 doubles.
When Wedge was asked a follow up last week specifically about Zunino, asking if the Mariners are only going to bring him up when he’s ready, not when an injury dictates it, he answered, “That’s exactly right.
But if the Mariners need a second catcher for any prolonged amount of time, that changes things. Bantz simply wasn’t going to be ready to provide anything with the bat, nor can you expect him to be able to handle a pitching staff at this level.
This obviously isn’t ideal, Wedge’s comments last week tell us as much, but if Zunino cuts down on the strikeouts, hits well and never looks back, then obviously that’s a win-win. If he doesn’t, the Mariners will have to make it clear to Zunino, and their fans, that this was only a temporary move predicated by unusual circumstances, and hope whatever struggles he might suffer don’t set Zunino back in his development.