By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Shortly after catcher Mike Zunino was drafted third overall by the Seattle Mariners last year, he showed up at Safeco Field with his dad, Greg.
The Mariners were showing the new prospect, known for his defense, the cavernous park he hoped to play in one day.
Zunino was able to take batting practice that afternoon. His first few swings were mediocre. Then, he started launching balls over the wall. Over and over.
Everyone kind of looked around, surprised by the power display from the college kid from the University of Florida. More surprising were his numbers once he joined the Class A Everett AquaSox. Zunino hit .373 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 29 games.
That bumped him to Class AA Jackson. Zunino didn’t slow down much.
Though it’s a small sample, Zunino hit .333 with a .974 OPS in the 15 games he played for Jackson.
In his first spring training with the Mariners, Zunino, who looks every part of a catcher from a 1950s baseball card, is in Peoria along with five other catchers.
Following last season, he took a few weeks off before getting back to work in Gainesville, Fla., where he went to college. He lifted weights and worked on his conditioning to prepare for spring training.
Where he fits in, at this point, is unclear.
The Mariners have Jesus Montero slated as the No. 1 catcher and veteran Kelly Shoppach as the backup. The Mariners also just signed Ronny Paulino as another veteran option. Zunino says it doesn’t matter to him where he starts the season.
“As long I can play to start the season is all that matters,” Zunino said. “I’m going to come out here and compete and obviously play as hard as I can. Whatever happens, happens.”
Zunino is known for his defensive ability, leadership and overall presence behind the plate. His bat? It’s projected to be solid, yet last year’s numbers still turned heads. They were also endearing to the organization.
“We knew he could hit,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “But, you’re always curious to see how it translates to pro ball. Obviously, he didn’t miss a beat.”
Zunino didn’t appeared fooled by the low-level minor league pitching he faced. He said a lot of pitchers started him with breaking pitches then worked fastballs inside, similar to the patterns he saw in college. At Class AA, pitchers began to try to set up Zunino, but he had narrowed things down before the at-bat started.
“As a catcher, I sort of try to catch on as quick as I can and designate at-bats, looking for a certain pitch in an at-bat,” Zunino said. “That pitch was coming up when I was looking for it. It turned out pretty well.”
Which is how Zunino’s short time with the Mariners is turning out.
“(He’s) impressive,” Wedge said. “He’s a complete player. Very comfortable in his own skin for a young man. I think that he carries himself with confidence but not any complacency. You can tell already he has a great respect for the game. You can tell already he’s a student of the game.”