Of all the ups and downs of this past Mariners season – that now has them with the longest playoff drought in American major professional sports – manager Scott Servais said at least one good thing came from it.
“There’s no bigger positive this year than Mike Zunino,” Servais said just after the season ended.
And now Zunino will get a bit of a raise to show for it.
He and the Mariners agreed to a $2.975 million deal, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported Thursday morning. The Mariners have not confirmed it.
Teams and players have until 10 a.m. on Friday to agree to deals to avoid arbitration. This would have been Zunino’s first year of being eligible for arbitration but he and the team avoided that with Thursday’s deal. He made $570,000 this past season and he’s under club control until 2021.
Zunino, the Mariners’ third overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, had his best season so far. He posted a career-best slash line of .251/.331/.509 (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) and had career-highs in RBIs (64), runs (52), hits (97), doubles (25), home runs (25) and walks (39).
Zunino had a 3.6 wins above replacement in 2017. That was tied for the third-highest among catchers in baseball, according to FanGraphs, just behind the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (4.4) and Giants’ Buster Posey (4.3).
That was a long way from where he started the year.
Zunino was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma after an arduous first month in the big leagues — this after spending much of 2016 tweaking his swing in the minors. Still, he struggled mechanically, Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
So much that he was hitting .167 with 30 strikeouts in his first 80 plate appearances.
“We all know it’s in there. No one’s giving up on him,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said at the time. “There’s too much talent there. He can do a lot of good things on the baseball field. We’ve just got to get him back to being consistent.”
So he overhauled his swing and went from looking like maybe another one of the Mariners’ first-round busts, to rejoining the big leagues after 19 days in Triple-A. He then hit all of his 25 homers the rest of the way and batted .270 with 62 of his 64 RBIs in the ensuing 355 plate appearances.
Zunino still struggles to make consistent contact, striking out a career-high 160 times. His strikeout rate has haunted him each of his five big-league seasons.
But at least recently the 26-year-old has found ways at the plate to offset that. He finished the year with a higher on-base percentage than Kyle Seager and a higher OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) than Robinson Cano.
“I’ve really just put my focus on at-bats – just having quality at-bats,” Zunino said at the end of the season.
Said one rival scout to The News Tribune in September: “You know, I think (Mike) Zunino has finally figured it out. I’m not completely sold yet. I want to see what happens next year. But he finally looks like he has a clue at the plate.
“He’s still going to strike out a lot, but his contact rate is up, and when he makes contact, it’s loud.”
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