Mariners get their guy: Gators’ Zunino

SEATTLE — Mike Zunino is a player more often described as steady than flashy, and for the Florida catcher who the Mariners made the No. 3 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, that description suits him just fine.

“I just want to be a well-rounded player,” Zunino said on a conference call. “For me, the most important thing is that I take pride in my defense. Whether it’s calling games or receiving or throwing or blocking, that’s really what defines me as a player, I believe. I want to be a good solid catcher back there, help the pitchers out, and then whatever I can do with the bat I try to do to help the team out.”

That the Mariners ended up picking Zunino Monday hardy comes as a surprise; many had projected him to end up in Seattle with the third pick. What was surprising, however, was the choice Seattle had when its pick came along. Houston, which had the first pick, started the afternoon off with an unexpected decision, taking Carlos Correa, a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico. Correa was a highly regarded prospect, and someone who could have been a consideration for Seattle, but almost everyone expected the top two picks to be Stanford pitcher Mark Appel and high school outfielder Byron Buxton. Buxton went second as expected, which left the Mariners to consider not just Zunino, but the pitcher who many expected to the No. 1 pick.

Tom McNamara, the Mariners scouting director, admitted he was, “A little surprised” with how the first two picks went, but said as always, the Mariners were prepared for multiple scenarios to play out at the top of the draft.

“Every year, it’s pretty stressful in there,” McNamara said. “I’m just glad to be out of that room … You spend all summer, fall, spring watching these players, traveling all over the place. You’ve got to be prepared, and we feel we were prepared to take the player we wanted to take.”

Zunino ended up being the player the Mariners wanted to take, and by selecting the 2011 SEC player of the year, the Mariners hope to have found one of the rarest commodities in baseball — a power-hitting catcher who is also a good defensive player.

“He’s a nice looking player,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “He’s a tough kid. You think about that position, it’s very difficult to fill it, as well all know and everyone in baseball knows. When you have a kid that has this type of pedigree, leadership skills and well as a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark, I thought it was a real nice package. Sitting in with the scouts all week long, everyone was sold on this kid’s makeup and the other intangibles that he brings to the plate at that position. That was big in our decision.”

Zunino, who has helped the Gators reach the NCAA Super Regionals, is a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the top player in college baseball. In the past two seasons, he has batted .345 with 17 home runs, 50 doubles and 127 RBI in 134 games.

The son of a Cincinnati Reds scout, Zunino was drafted by Oakland in the 30th round out of Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla., but he elected to go to college to improve his game. The Mariners were familiar with Zunino out of high school, kept tabs on him during his college career, and came away impressed with his growth as a player.

“I did see him in high school, and we liked him as a high school player,” McNamara said. “We liked his defense and his leadership ability. We knew he had instincts, he comes from a baseball family. When he signed with the University of Florida, we tracked him and watched him for three years. He’s steady. He doesn’t jump out and wow you like some other players, but what you get at the end of the day is a steady, hard-nosed, tough kid whose got power and can really catch.”

McNamara and Zduriencik saw an example of Zunino’s toughness in person when they went to Florida to see him play. When he arrived in town late on a Friday night, McNamara looked up the results of that night’s Florida game and saw that Zunino had caught every inning of a 16-inning game. The next day, with Zduriencik and McNamara on hand to watch, Zunino put in nine more innings behind the plate.

“That tells you about his stomach and what kind of character the kid has,” McNamara said.

Of course the Mariners’ decision to take a catcher in the first round will inevitably lead to questions about what they plan to do with Jesus Montero. Despite many people saying Montero doesn’t have the skill set to be an every day catcher, the Mariners have maintained that they see him as just that since acquiring him in an offseason trade with the Yankees. Zunino is still a couple of years away from the Major Leagues in all likelihood, and if by the time he is ready to catch every day Montero has developed into a solid catcher, well that’s a problem the Mariners would be happy to sort out.

“We’ll see what happens as we go forward,” Zduriencik said. “You can never have enough catchers, as we know, as you go through the course of the year. And fortunately in our league you do have the DH, so as we move forward — things happen. If you like a player, you take him and let it fall where it may. I’ve been in this game long enough and you guys have been around it long enough to know things happen. We do think that this guy’s a very nice receiver, we like Montero an awful lot, and they’ll both be in our plans as we go forward.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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