John McGrath

Mariners might have an MVP candidate in ... yep, Mike Zunino

Seattle Mariners’ Mike Zunino tosses his batting helmet as he heads home on his two-run home run, scoring the winning run against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Seattle. The Mariners won 6-5.
Seattle Mariners’ Mike Zunino tosses his batting helmet as he heads home on his two-run home run, scoring the winning run against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Seattle. The Mariners won 6-5. The Associated Press

When it comes to the Mariners, we tend to dwell on all the front-office miscues responsible for the longest playoff drought in major professional sports.

Draft classes distinguished by first-round whiffs, a barren farm system, five different general managers and 10 different field managers since making their last postseason appearance in 2001 — the troubles are many. The template for a championship baseball operation could read: “Pay attention to everything the Seattle Mariners have done, and then do exactly the opposite.”

But once in a while, there’s a success story worth pointing out. Mike Zunino, for instance.

Zunino avoided arbitration last week by agreeing to play for $2.975-million in 2018. It’s a good deal for Zunino and a great one for the Mariners, who’ll be paying a below-average salary to an above-average catcher yet to reach his career peak years. Zunino turns 27 on March 25, four days before the opener of a season that figures to find him building upon last season’s bounce-back effort.

It began with Zunino in a funk, beset by poor swing mechanics and a confidence crisis severe enough to affect his usually reliable work behind the plate. On May 5, he was optioned to Tacoma after hitting .167, striking out 30 times in 80 plate appearances. There’s a trend in baseball tolerating strikeouts if they’re mitigated by power, but Zunino reported to the Rainiers with zero home runs.

“We’re here to get him back as quick as we can,” Tacoma manager Pat Listach said last spring. “We all know it’s in there. No one’s giving up on him. 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.”

Taking cues from Listach and Rainiers batting coach Dave Berg, Zunino spent three weeks in Tacoma, where he rediscovered his power — he connected for five home runs in 45 plate appearances — while cutting down on the strikeouts. Upon returning to Seattle, Zunino put together impressive numbers over the final 100 games, hitting .270, with 25 homers.

There’s reason to anticipate Zunino becoming a 30 or even 35 home-run guy. Combine that production with a strong arm and ability to gain the trust of pitchers, it’s the profile of an MVP candidate. Big-league catchers typically contribute either on offense or defense. Zunino gives the Mariners plenty of both.

What’s encouraging about Zunino’s maturation is that it was a group effort suggesting the Mariners organization isn’t populated by stooges. Take the demotion to Tacoma. Zunino wasn’t forced to pack suitcases for a relocation to a Triple-A affiliate several hundred miles away. He remained in the Seattle area, enabling him to begin a stress-free remedial course in swing mechanics.

Meanwhile, general manager Jerry Dipoto remained patient with Zunino, five years into a career known more for its prolonged slumps than occasional flashes of potential. Shipping him elsewhere could have been justified as a mutually beneficial move — the Mariners ridding themselves of an exasperation, and the former No. 3 overall draft pick getting a fresh start in a different environment — but a .167 hitter with 30 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances has next to no value as a trade chip.

So Dipoto stayed the course, realizing catchers, with their coach-on-the-field responsibilities, usually need more time to adjust to the major leagues than other position players.

Dipoto’s predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, put Zunino on a fast track. He made his 2013 debut as a second-year pro whose minor-league apprenticeship was limited to fewer than 100 games. Accelerating a catcher’s developmental process isn’t necessarily a mistake. Dan Wilson was drafted by the Reds in 1990, reached the bigs in 1992, and ended up in the Mariners Hall of Fame.

Seattle manager Scott Servais was another quick bloomer. Servais arrived in the majors toward the end of his third pro season, a jump he attributes to the international experience he gained with the USA Baseball program.

But Zunino wasn’t ready in 2013, and one month into the 2017 season, he still wasn’t ready.

He’s ready now.

Baseball being baseball, some bumps in the road await. It’s conceivable Zunino could struggle through another slow start, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and baffled by pitches delivered into his wheelhouse.

More likely, he’ll emerge as a perennial candidate for the All-Star Game. Seattle has sent one catcher to the Midsummer Classic — Wilson, in 1996 — which underscores why Zunino is such a rare commodity.

“There’s always going to be hot streaks and cold streaks,” manager Scott Servais told mlb.com during the winter meetings. What intrigues Servais is the progress Zunino has made as a game-manager behind the plate.

“I think a lot of it had to do with his confidence level,” said Servais. “He just felt like he was really contributing offensively.”

Extolling the virtues of the Mariners front office is not something I regularly do, but the organization got this one right. It hit a home run with Mike Zunino, who won’t be shuttling between Seattle and Tacoma any time soon.

His next trip will be an upbeat jog, with three left turns.

  Comments