Mike Zunino will stick with Mariners only if he can get playing time, says GM Jerry Dipoto
In a perfect world, Mike Zunino would have been given the entire season to work on his approach at the plate in Triple-A. The Mariners don’t live in a perfect world, however, and the 25-year-old catcher was called back up to the big club Thursday after backup Steve Clevenger suffered a broken bone in his right hand.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Zunino isn’t ready to hit MLB pitching again, but it is telling that a series of circumstances needed to occur to put him in position to prove if he can or not.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto told “Danny, Dave and Moore” Thursday that Zunino was essentially the only option they had to back up Chris Iannetta when Clevenger went down, as fellow Rainiers catcher Rob Brantly had left Tacoma to be present for the birth of his child and Jesus Sucre is still on a rehab program after breaking his leg in winter ball. Zunino’s performance in the minors has been good, though, and Dipoto said he had earned the opportunity to rejoin the Mariners.
“Mike has put himself in a nice position. He’s done the things that we’ve asked him to do in the first half of the year in Tacoma, and he’s made slight improvements – and in some areas more than slight improvements,” Dipoto said. “We’ll see how it translates in the big leagues.”
To this point, Zunino’s career is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a player is fast-tracked to the majors. One of the better hitters in the NCAA during his days with Florida, Zunino played just 96 minor-league games before the Mariners called him up at 22 years old during the 2013 season. And while he built a reputation as one of the better defensive catchers in baseball and even mashed 20 homers in 2014, contact became a big problem. He finished with sub-.200 batting averages in each of the last two seasons as Seattle’s primary catcher and was especially prone to striking out.
The act of resetting Zunino’s career began late last year when he was demoted to Tacoma by former general manager Jack Zduriencik, and it has continued under Dipoto and first-year manager Scott Servais. Dipoto said they had hoped to keep Zunino in Tacoma for “most or all of the year,” but the team will do everything it can in Seattle to keep his development moving in the right direction. First and foremost, that means playing time. And if that can’t happen with the Mariners, it will mean a trip back to Triple-A sooner rather than later.
“We don’t want him to sit here and watch. We do want him to play more regularly, and that was part of the plan,” Dipoto said. “If over the next seven or 10 days, as we get through this period, it appears that Mike is not playing as regularly as we’d like, then we’ll find a way to get him back to Tacoma. But that can only happen if the other guys (Brantly or Sucre) are ready to go.
“Here in the short-term, his playing time will predicate how long he stays on the roster, and our hope is that the lessons have been learned and it is a permanent thing and he can take it and run with it.”
Working in Zunino’s favor is the fact that he’s made significant improvement at the plate with the Rainiers. He had an absolute monster April to win the Pacific Coast League’s player of the month award, and though he struggled for a time in May, he’s rebounded and owns a .288 average and .366 on-base percentage for the year. He also has 15 homers and has struck out 62 times to 28 walks. By comparison, he had 11 home runs and struck out 132 times to 21 walks with the Mariners in 2015.
“He’s really done a much better job of controlling the strike zone,” Dipoto said. “He’s drastically cut his strikeout rate, his walk rate has improved quite a bit, and he’s back to doing the good things that Mike did through his former player development and even what he was doing at the University of Florida. He’s always had the ability to hit the ball over the fence – that’s never gone away – but you can only hit it over the fence if you hit it. He’s in much better hitter’s counts and he’s doing a much better job of making contact.
“We’re not looking for him to be the next iteration of Mike Piazza. We would like to see him be a contributor offensively and do the things that he has done very well behind the plate. But being a contributor offensively is important to him long-term. … I hope we see enough of an improvement. We sure have in Triple-A. Now we’ll see if he can translate that to the major-league level.”