At this time last year, Tacoma catcher Mike Zunino was leading the Florida Gators to their third consecutive College World Series for the first time in school history.
A year later, Zunino is on the fast track to the majors. The third overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in last year's draft, Zunino has experienced a rare hitting slump in his Triple-A debut but continues to be an RBI machine.
“He'll be a No. 1 catcher in the big leagues for a decade or longer,” said Tacoma manager John Stearns. “He's not quite ready, yet. He signed less than a year ago. The most important thing for him is to prove he can play defensively in the big leagues.”
Named the national college player of the year, Zunino received a $4 million signing bonus, which was under the slot recommendation. But by signing quickly, Zunino improved his chances of reaching the majors earlier.
There's always trepidation about promoting a player too soon. But most scouts feel Zunino, 22, doesn't need much more time in the minors, especially playing for an organization that lacks players with star potential.
“As a player you want to move as fast as you can,” Zunino said. “I just need to continue to put my work in, try to better myself and bring a good attitude to the ballpark every day. It's been a lot of fun with this team.”
Zunino created a buzz around baseball last summer after he hit .360 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in only 44 games in Class-A and Double-A.
Because of his defensive struggles, Seattle catcher Jesus Montero might be relegated to being the Mariners designated hitter. Most expect Zunino to become Seattle's starting catcher before the All-Star break, possibly as early as Memorial Day.
“Obviously it's great to hear and great that people think that about me,” Zunino said. “I'm just trying to become the best player I can be. They'll call me up whenever they think the time is right.”
It might actually benefit Zunino that he's experiencing a rare slump. It gives the Mariners a chance to see how he responds.
Zunino hit .429 with five homers and 16 RBIs in his first five games this season but then batted .115 over the next 17 games. He showed signed signs of ending the slump with three hits in Tacoma's series opener Monday night against the RedHawks at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
But defense is the variable that will determine when the Mariners feel Zunino is ready.
“That's the big thing for me,” Zunino said. “As a catcher when you're in a slump you can still help the pitching staff and help us win games. I know the hitting will come. I've been catching well and we've been playing well. That's my main job.”
Zunino is hitting only .220 but is second in the Pacific Coast League with 29 RBIs.
“There's going to be struggles in baseball. That's just the way it is,” Zunino said. “You learn a lot about yourself and go from there. One of the good things about this sport is we play every day. If I can have some good at bats eventually you bust out of it.”
Zunino busted out at Florida. Last season, he led the Gators in home runs (19), RBIs (67) and hitting (.322) then followed with impressive numbers in his pro debut.
That's why Stearns said Zunino's recent slump isn't a concern.
“He's going to be fine,” Stearns said. “He's going to be taxed a little at this level. But to be in Triple-A a year after college, he's holding his own. He just needs 50 or so games. He'll get it straightened out offensively and his defense is looking more and more solid. He has a great career in front of him.”