Almost four years ago, the Seattle Mariners selected Golden Spikes Award winner Mike Zunino with the third overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. The University of Florida catcher was seen as one of the best young hitters in baseball, and seemed destined to solve the Mariners ongoing catcher issue. It is an issue that has loomed since the 2005 retirement of Dan Wilson.
The Mariners wasted little time giving Zunino a chance, calling him up in June of the 2013 campaign, just a mere year after he was drafted. He would serve as the Mariner catcher for the next month before injuring his hand in July. Zunino would subsequently return in September and get most of the starts to close the year. He wound up hitting .214/.290/.329 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI in 52 games. The following year wasn’t much better for Zunino offensively, as he hit only .199/.254/.404, though he did hit 22 home runs while playing plus defense.
With some Mariners fans becoming wary of Zunino’s contact issues and high strikeout rates, 2015 was considered by many to be a big year for the young catcher as fans were ready to see Zunino really shine in all ways. Unfortunately, it ended up being a miserable year for the former Florida Gator. He hit a measly .174/.230/300 with a whopping 132 strikeouts in only 350 at-bats. In August he was optioned to Tacoma and was surprisingly not recalled in September, as the team felt he would benefit more by working on his swing in the instructional league.
In the offseason, the Mariners signed veteran Chris Iannetta and acquired Steve Clevenger from the Orioles, giving the team depth at catcher, and also giving Zunino an opportunity to get going in Triple-A before returning to the majors. While Zunino had spent some time in the minor leagues he never really blew anyone away offensively when he was at Advanced A in 2012. In his biggest sample in the minors in 2013, Zunino only slashed a mediocre .227/.297/.478 with 11 home runs. This year though has been a totally different story. Through the first 14 games of the season, Zunino is hitting an outstanding .411/.443/.857 while also hitting 7 home runs including a stretch of 5 straight games with a long ball. He also has driven in 20 runs, and has continued to play plus defense. Although that wasn’t an issue for him in the majors either.
The big question for the Mariners now is what exactly do they want to do with the big catcher. Neither Iannetta nor Clevenger have been world-beaters, but both have been serviceable at the dish and defensively as well. The other concern for the Mariners is Zunino’s track record of struggling at the big-league level.
At this point, it doesn’t make sense to call up Zunino, because the Mariners aren’t exactly desperate for catchers right now like they have been in the past couple years. They are best off letting Zunino continue to work on his fundamentals in Tacoma and if he continues to progress well, consider giving him a call-up in the summer. There’s still a ton of potential left in the young catcher. By letting him stay in the minors the Mariners just may be able to find what they hoped for when they selected him third overall in 2012.