The Seattle Mariners’ first-round draft selection of catcher Mike Zunino does not mean Jesus Montero’s future behind the plate is in jeopardy.
Not yet, anyway.
Zunino won’t sign a contract until his University of Florida team concludes its season, and the Gators are expected to return to the College World Series. Even when Zunino agrees to terms, he’ll likely be looking at an Arizona Fall League assignment that’ll help determine what minor-league level the Mariners have in mind for him next spring.
If there’s a potential quandary at the catching position, it’s months – if not years – away.
“We’ll see what happens as we go forward,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said after the Mariners took Zunino as the third overall pick Monday.
Zduriencik then added a baseball truism that isn’t really true: “You never have enough catchers.”
Never, Jack? I don’t know about that. I’m inclined to think, say, eight would be enough on a 25-man roster. However many catchers the Mariners settle upon, Zunino’s ascent through the farm system should be intriguing.
When a high school catching prospect is drafted, he either goes to the minors for six or seven seasons of apprentice work (as was the case with Mariners first-rounder Dave Valle) or goes to the minors and never is seen again (as was the case with Mariners first-rounder Ryan Christianson).
Zunino had a chance to sign with the Oakland Athletics in 2009, when he was selected in the 30th round. But he chose to play through his junior year at Florida, an astute decision that turned out to be worth about $5 million in signing-bonus money. It also seriously reduced the time he’ll spend in the minors.
Not all college programs are created equal. Zunino competes for one that belongs to a big-time conference loaded with future major leaguers. It’s reasonable to compare Zunino’s college baseball career with that of San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, selected out of Florida State as the fifth overall choice of the 2008 draft.
Posey produced more impressive offensive statistics in college (he also used a hitter-friendly aluminum bat that has been unavailable to NCAA players the past two seasons), but behind the plate he was, well, an ex-shortstop for the Seminoles who’d converted to catcher as a sophomore.
Zunino’s game-management savvy, on the other hand, is said to be off the charts. (He calls most of the Gators’ pitches. Foisting that sort of responsibility on a catcher is becoming increasingly uncommon in the big leagues, and is rare, to the point of remarkable, in college.)
In any case, Posey took an accelerated track through the San Francisco farm system. He made his debut with the Giants on Sept. 11, 2009, just 15 months after he was drafted. And though he began the 2010 season at Triple-A Fresno, he was called up to stay on May, 29, 2010.
Posey’s promotion was the stuff of baseball legend: The Giants already had a veteran catcher, Bengie Molina, renowned for his ability to put the team’s young pitchers in a comfort zone. Now they had Posey.
General manager Brian Sabean did not subscribe to the you-can’t-have-enough-catchers theory. He traded Molina to the Texas Rangers, who would go on to face the Giants in the World Series. And Posey? He’d go on to become the National League Rookie of the Year as a key component for a world championship team.
We shouldn’t anticipate that Zunino will be called up in 15 months, and it’d be ludicrous to expect him to lead the Mariners to the 2014 World Series.
But if converted-shortstop catcher Buster Posey could take a job away from Bengie Molina after minimal seasoning in the minor leagues, I suspect Mike Zunino will take a job away from Jesus Montero, sooner or later. Bet on the sooner.
Such a scenario shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world for Montero, merely the beginning of a new one. He could serve as a backup to Zunino once or twice a week as he adjusts to the role of primary designated hitter.
As for Zunino, projections of his abbreviated stint in the minors can be based on more than the convenient comparison with Posey.
Projections can be based on a former first-round draft choice who balanced just-enough production from his bat with the steady, sturdy, intensely contagious confidence that exudes the essence of a catcher.
The University of Minnesota’s Dan Wilson, taken by the Cincinnati Reds as the seventh overall pick of the 1990 draft, reached the majors on Sept. 7, 1992. Wilson played in only 12 games that season, but somebody in the Reds’ dugout was impressed: manager Lou Piniella, who lobbied for the trade that brought Wilson to the Mariners in 1994.
From what I’ve read about Mike Zunino, he seems to be a humble type who excels in a key of low. He probably would cringe at being called the next Buster Posey.
He’ll learn it’s an honor to be called the next Dan Wilson.firstname.lastname@example.org