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 get into the batter’s box that afternoon and take batting practice. 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 out of Florida. More surprising were his numbers once he joined the Single-A Everett AquaSox. Zunino hit .373 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 29 games.
That bumped him to Double-A Jackson in a hurry. He 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 in the winter before getting back to work in Gainesville, Fla., where he went to college at the University of Florida. He lifted weights and worked on his conditioning to prep for his time in Peoria.
Where he fits in, at this point, is unclear.
The Mariners have Jesus Montero slated as the No. 1 catcher with veteran Kelly Shoppach in the fold to relieve Montero when necessary. 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.”
When touted, Zunino’s defensive ability, leadership and overall presence behind the plate stand out. 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 appear fooled by the low-level minor league pitching he faced. He said much of the time pitchers started him with breaking pitches then worked fastballs inside, similar to the patterns he saw in college. At Double A, pitchers tried 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.”
PLAN FOR 1B, DH
Wedge is going forward with Justin Smoak at first base and Kendrys Morales at designated hitter.
He also said spring training is a mere part of the assessment process and not a large influence unless something “drastic” happens.
Wedge will have a difficult juggle in front of him since the Mariners are backlogged with designated hitters/first basemen/outfielders. Mike Morse, Raul Ibañez and Jason Bay can all play the outfield or DH. Morse and Ibañez can play first, too, though each has very limited experience there.
“With guys we’ve already had, the history helps us, because there are so many indicators, both good and bad there, that you can work off of,” Wedge said. “Of course, playing against Morales, I know what he’s all about.
“Right now, sitting here today, we’re lined up to where Smoak is going to get the bulk of time at first base and Kendrys is going to get the bulk of time at DH. We’ve got enough flexibility and versatility that we can change off that if we have to.”
FELIX GETTING READY
Monday was another light day for Felix Hernandez, who just threw on flat ground.
Wedge said the 2010 Cy Young Award winner is likely to throw his first bullpen session of the spring on Wednesday.todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas