Mike Zunino watched Felix Hernandez pitch on Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles at Safeco Field. If all goes right in his now-24-hour-old professional baseball career, the Mariners’ top pick of the 2012 amateur draft might be calling and catching pitches from Hernandez in two years.
Zunino, a hard-hitting, defensive-minded catcher out of the University of Florida, was drafted third overall by the Mariners with the hope he will be their catcher of the future. He was introduced to the media Tuesday, a day after signing his contract with Seattle.
“This is a tough kid,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said Tuesday, repeating an adjective he’s used often since selecting Zunino on June 4.
Zduriencik mentioned that he once saw Zunino catch full games on a Saturday and Sunday after catching a 16-inning game on the preceding Friday night.
“In those two games we saw him, he didn’t drop a ball,” Zduriencik said. “There wasn’t a ball that got past him. He blocked every ball. He caught everything clean. His offensive numbers are obviously impressive, but what he does behind the plate is going to be very important to this organization as we move forward.”
Zunino, who was accompanied by his father, Greg, a Cincinnati Reds scout, his mother, Paola, and his fiancée, Alyssa Barry, wore a slick silver suit that shined in the television lights almost as much as his constant smile.
“It’s very surreal,” he said. “I’m extremely honored. I’m excited to be a part of an organization with so much young talent. Hopefully, I can be part of that groundwork that’s been set.”
Zunino, 21, was a consensus first-team All-American after winning his team’s triple crown – leading the Gators in batting average (.322), home runs (19) and RBI (67). He helped lead Florida (47-20) to its third consecutive trip to the College World Series.
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Zunino. It started when the Gators – the top seed at the CWS – were knocked out of the tournament with two unexpected losses.
“It definitely didn’t go how we drew it up,” he said. “It was baseball. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to. We caught some bad breaks. But in the long run, we had a good season.”
From there, Zunino went to Wichita, Kan., to receive the Johnny Bench Award given to college baseball’s top catcher. He then traveled to Lubbock, Texas, where he was given the Dick Howser Trophy as the college baseball writers’ player of the year at the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He also picked up Baseball America’s college player of the year award.
During that time, he has managed to get in a few weight room workouts but little if any baseball stuff.
“I haven’t been able to do too much on the field,” he said.
His first real swings since the CWS were Tuesday, when he took pregame batting practice at Safeco Field. Zunino hit a few deep homers during the showing.
And the traveling isn’t done for Zunino. He will be in New York City this weekend for the Golden Spikes Award ceremony as one of the three finalists as USA Baseball’s top amateur player. From there, he will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to be honored at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
“I told him that based on all the hardware he’s receiving, we are going to have to bring a buggy or something to put it in,” Zduriencik said.
But in between then, he will report to Single-A Everett, where he will start his professional career. Everett manager Rob Mummau actually scouted and helped sign Zunino.
Sending Zunino to Everett might be surprising, considering how advanced he is as a player, but Zduriencik wanted to start Zunino slowly.
“I think it would be a good spot for him,” Zduriencik said. “He’s been off for a little while. We will let him play there and see how his summer unfolds.”
Could he move up to High-A High Desert or even Double-A Jackson if he plays well?
“I don’t want to make that prediction,” Zduriencik said. “A lot of things happen, but we expect him to go out and perform. Let’s just see what happens in Everett first.”
What can fans who go to AquaSox games expect to see from Zunino?
“I’m just a hard-nosed player,” he said. “I take every game one game at a time and play as hard as I possibly can. I pride myself in my defense and working with the pitching staff. Obviously, I enjoy swinging the bat also.”
The simple fact that Zunino is signed and preparing to play this early in the season is something Zduriencik credits to the new collective bargaining agreement, which pushed up the signing deadline to mid-July.
“It’s great. You look at the number of guys we have already signed, that signed within the first week – I do think the new CBA had an awful lot to do with that,” he said. “With (Zunino), he wanted to get out and play. Mike was like, ‘I’m ready to go.’ The fact we have them for a month and a half is different than the past. Usually, we’re waiting until August 15, and we don’t see the kid until the instructional league. Right now, he’s going to get a month-and-a-half under his belt, and we’ll see what happens in the fall.”email@example.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish