Prospect Zunino wields impact bat for Mariners
Seattle Mariners catching prospect Mike Zunino grew up in a professional baseball environment.
Zunino's dad, Greg, who at one point was a prospect in the Yankees' organization, is currently a scout for the Cincinnati Reds.
Right after watching Zunino hammer the ball in batting practice during the recently concluded Arizona Fall League, Mike told me how great it was having his dad assisting him in his career as a professional baseball player.
In my estimation, Zunino will become an impact player.
Ironically, Zunino attended Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla. Little did he know when he was hitting .464 in his senior year that he would someday be selected to play baseball for the Seattle Mariners.
Following his tremendous success in high school, the Oakland Athletics selected Zunino in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
Instead of signing with Oakland, Zunino attended the University of Florida. Among numerous other awards, Zunino was chosen twice as a Louisville Slugger First-Team All-American.
Beginning in 2010 as a freshman, Zunino was a major component of the Gators' three consecutive appearances in the College World Series. He finished his career at Florida with a .327 batting average, 47 home runs and 175 runs batted in. He also stole 24 bases in 30 attempts, an important statistic that separates him from many catchers.
Following his final season at Florida, Zunino was the winner of the prestigious 2012 Dick Howser Trophy. It's an award comparable to football's Heisman Trophy that is presented to the national collegiate baseball player of the year.
Zunino's offensive accomplishments as well as his stellar defense and outstanding makeup and character motivated the Seattle club to choose Zunino as the third-overall selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Zunino agreed to contract terms and began his professional career as a member of the short-season Everett club in the Northwest League. In 29 games and 133 plate appearances, Zunino did what he had always done before. He hit a scorching .373 with 10 home runs and 35 runs batted in. His baseball career had been launched.
Zunino followed that with a stop at Double-A Jackson in the Southern League. Still showing his outstanding offensive skill, he hit .333 with another three homers in 57 plate appearances.
In his first year, at age 21, Mike Zunino hit a combined .360 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs. In one season, Zunino established himself as an offensive force.
The athletic 6-foot-2, 220-pound, right-handed-hitting Zunino is solidly built and able to endure the rigors of catching. His body is very well proportioned with upper body strength and powerful legs. After I met him and we exchanged a handshake, I had firsthand knowledge of the strength and power of his hands.
Zunino was considered by most scouts to have been the best pure hitter in the 2012 Draft. Instead of hearing people tell me about him, I have seen it for myself.
My first observation of Zunino in the Arizona Fall League made me realize he could be a special hitter.
When I first saw Zunino hit, the ball made that "special sound" coming off his bat. In the quiet of the sparsely populated stadium, it was almost as if the game was being played in surround sound.
Hearing that sound on one occasion might be a fluke. However, it happened over and over during the entire Fall League season. What I thought was a fluke became his standard. It was a fluke when the ball didn't fly off his bat.
Zunino uses a very good balance of both his upper and lower body when he shifts his weight into his swing. He doesn't try to do too much with the pitch.
Watching him initially in batting practice, I thought he would be an exclusive left-field "pull side" hitter. That simply is not the case.
He meets the ball where it is thrown and makes every attempt, most of the time successfully, to use the entire field. Using strong wrists and good plate coverage, I have seen him dump a single into right field and hit the gaps in the outfield. But the loudest and most vicious line drives do, indeed, go to deep left field.
If there is any "hole" in Zunino's offense to date, it might be his difficulty with high fastballs. I have seen him swing and miss at pitches too high and out of the strike zone.
There are times as well when he gets out front of pitches, swinging too early and hitting long foul balls to left field.
Currently, Zunino projects as a line-drive-hitting doubles machine. He will hit his share of home runs, but I believe his impact will be derived from gap power. Especially at Safeco Field in Seattle. The park is ideal for his compact, line-drive swing.
Zunino, though not flawless, is solid defensively. He has a strong and accurate arm. If pitchers are quick enough to the plate, he will release the ball in plenty of time with excellent strength and carry to nab potential basestealers.
I think he manages a game well by realizing situations and shepherding his pitcher.
My only concern with Zunino's defense is his footwork. I have seen times when he has not shifted his feet properly to block balls in the dirt. However, there have been an equal number of proper mechanical footwork displays.
Zunino wields an impact bat for a club seeking additional offense. He has given the Seattle organization and its fans a great deal of hope.
Zunino is advanced enough that the Mariners could be hard pressed to avoid promoting him to the Major League club sooner than might be expected. They may need his bat in Seattle.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.