It wasn’t about position. It wasn’t about need. It wasn’t about signability.
The Seattle Mariners selected University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino with the third pick of the amateur free agent baseball draft Monday because he was the player they wanted.
“He’s steady,” Mariners director of scouting Tom McNamara said. “He doesn’t jump out and wow you like some other players. But what you get at the end of the day is a steady, hard-nosed, tough kid who has got power and can really catch.”
With the Gators preparing to play North Carolina State in the Super Regionals of the NCAA tournament, Zunino was in Gainesville, Fla., watching the draft with his roommates, his fiancée and his family.
“I’m just extremely honored,” Zunino said via conference call. “I didn’t have any inclination. I was just ecstatic when I heard my name called by the commissioner.”
Zunino is a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award for best college catcher, the Dick Howser Trophy for best college player and the Golden Spikes Award for best amateur player.
He was named a first-team Louisville Slugger All-America last week by Collegiate Baseball. As a sophomore, he was the 2011 Southeastern Conference player of the year after hitting .371 with 19 homers, 67 RBI with a .442 on-base percentage and a .674 slugging percentage.
He earned first-team all-SEC honors and first team SEC all-defensive team honors for the past two seasons.
“He’s hit 35 home runs in two years,” McNamara said. “Obviously, he’s got power. He’s gotten better each year, and that’s what we like about him.”
Seattle had been linked to Zunino leading up to the draft. But there was some late thought that McNamara and general manager Jack Zduriencik might decide to go with slugging shortstop Carlos Correa out of Puerto Rico – a player who does possess that “wow” factor.
However, the Houston Astros stunned most of the draft experts when they selected Correa with the first overall pick instead of Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. The Twins selected high school outfielder Byron Buxton out of Appling County, Ga., with the second pick, setting up the Mariners to take either Zunino or one of several talented college pitchers. Seattle opted for the catcher they’ve scouted since his days at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla.
“We’ve watched him for three years,” McNamara said. “There’s a lot I like about Mike Zunino. His character, his integrity, the family he comes from. We talk about it all the time in our meetings. He’s a winning player with character. Obviously, you have to have talent to be the No. 3 pick in the country. He’s a good defensive catcher, he has extra-base power, and he’s a leader.”
Zduriencik and McNamara saw Zunino a month ago for a weekend series and the GM have to be sold on taking him.
“He’s a nice-looking player,” Zduriencik said. “He’s a tough kid. You think about that position. It’s very difficult to fill it as we know and everyone in baseball knows. When you have a kid with the pedigree and leadership skills, as well as the chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark, I thought it was a real nice package.”
Zduriencik’s known Zunino’s father, Greg, and his mother, Paola, for more than two decades. Greg Zunino is former minor league player and is an area scout for the Cincinnati Reds.
The last time the Mariners selected a catcher with this high of a pick was 2005 when they selected Jeff Clement out of USC third.
But the difference between Zunino now and Clement back then is defensive skill. Zunino is far more polished as a catcher. He’s thrown out more than a third of attempted base stealers in college. And defense is something that he takes pride in.
“I just want to be a well-rounded player,” he said. “For me, the most important thing is to take pride in my defense. Whether it’s calling the game, receiving, throwing or blocking, that’s what really defines me as a player. I want to be a good, solid figure back there and help the pitchers out. And then whatever I can do with the bat to help the team out.”
The Mariners don’t have a wealth of great catching prospects in the minor leagues. Zunino will likely be at the top of the list when he signs. However, they did address the position in the offseason by trading for Jesus Montero from the Yankees. While Montero is still learning to become a viable defensive catcher in the big leagues, he figures to be a major part of the team’s future.
So how does adding Zunino work?
“We’ll see what happens as we go forward,” Zduriencik said. “You never have enough catchers. Fortunately, in our league, we have a DH. As you move forward, things happen. If you like a player, you take him and let it fall into place. We do think this guy is a very nice receiver. We like Montero an awful lot. They’ll both be in our plans as we move forward.”
It’s not a dilemma the Mariners will have to deal with anytime soon. Zunino still has to finish his college season and then Zduriencik and McNamara have to sign him to a contract.
However, with the signing deadline pushed up to July, Zunino could get in a month or a month and a half of games in the minors this season. Zduriencik also mentioned that Zunino would likely play in the Arizona Fall League. While there are no guarantees about how fast a player can become ready for the majors, the Mariners hope Zunino’s timetable is relatively quick.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t take a college position at three if we didn’t think his path was quicker than the norm,” McNamara said.