Second-year catcher has hit well, but his so-far solid defense will determine if Mike Zunino can break camp with Seattle.
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s barely 8 a.m., but Mike Zunino is already dressed and bouncing around the clubhouse.
The catcher is getting used to never sitting still, having fattened his air miles across a significant part of the country since the Mariners drafted him No. 3 overall last June out of the University of Florida. There was the College World Series in Nebraska, then a two-week trip to three states to collect some of the biggest awards in amateur baseball, a stint with Seattle’s short-season Class A affiliate in Everett, then its Class AA squad in Tennessee.
After that, Zunino, 21, returned briefly to Florida, where he split time between his home in Fort Myers and visiting friends in Gainesville. But he was soon flying to Arizona to prepare for the start of the Arizona Fall League, featuring some of Major League Baseball’s top prospects.
Until, that is, he had to interrupt this trip and return to Fort Myers three weeks ago to take care of some important business — his wedding.
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“It was a huge day,” Zunino said of the 200-guest affair attended by many of his college teammates, as the Gators’ football game played in the background throughout. “We had a bunch of people, a bunch of family and friends. We couldn’t have asked for it to go any better.”
Zunino and his new bride, Alyssa, whom he has known since middle school and dated since they were sophomores in high school, packed their bags that night. They spent the next day on a “mini-honeymoon” in Sanibel Island, Fla., then headed back to Arizona.
Alyssa had to leave Arizona ahead of him to tend to most of the last-minute wedding details, since Zunino couldn’t fly back until two days before to pick up his tuxedo. But they pulled it off.
“It’s definitely been crazy and a whirlwind,” Alyssa said. “It’s not easy to try to play baseball and plan a wedding. But Mike wanted to stay involved in all the details, and I kept him involved in every decision. He had input on all the things we ended up doing.”
Zunino wasn’t told until after the AA season that the Mariners wanted him in the Arizona Fall League. So, he spent the few weeks of downtime he had in Florida trying to stay in shape. He worked out at the aptly named Mariner High School, his alma mater in Cape Coral, Fla., where his former teammate A.J. Reyes is the assistant baseball coach.
“He’d throw me in a group and get some hitting done, catch a couple of pens,” Zunino said. “Just so I get my work in.”
In between, Zunino would drive up to Gainesville, to the University of Florida campus.
“It’s a few hours’ drive, and I’ve got some good friends up there, so I just go up there and crash with them,” he said. “I’ll stay with them for a few days at a time and then head on back home.”
Zunino and his wife have put off a longer honeymoon indefinitely, not knowing where his baseball future will lead next. He is expected to get an invitation to Mariners spring training — customary for most first-round picks — and there is talk he could even suit up for the squad at some point next season.
But Zunino isn’t banking on anything.
“I find it’s best if I just focus on playing baseball and leave those kinds of decisions to them,” he said.
Still, Mariners player-development staff in the stands are focusing on how Zunino plays baseball as well for the next month. General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge watched Zunino begin his AFL stint for the Peoria Javelinas — comprising prospects from the Mariners, Phillies, Reds, Twins and Padres — in their second game, first as a designated hitter and then behind the plate the next afternoon.
In his first 10 AFL games, Zunino went 12 for 42 (.286) at the plate, with a home run, two doubles, two triples, nine runs batted in and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .848. That came on the heels of him batting .373 with an OPS of 1.210 for Everett and .333 with a .974 OPS in 15 games at AA, including the playoffs.
“I honestly was not expecting much,” Zunino said of his minor-league numbers. “I went in just trying to play good baseball and put together good at-bats and catch well. And the results came, which was nice. So I actually wasn’t trying to do too much. I was just trying to play and have fun.”
Yet how quickly Zunino adapts and hits at each level won’t determine whether he’ll play for the Mariners in 2013.
Any quick promotion will be based on the catcher’s defense, something the Mariners lack with Miguel Olivo gone. The Mariners did not see enough behind the plate from John Jaso — despite how well he hit right-handed pitchers — to feel comfortable playing him in too many consecutive games at catcher.
Jesus Montero demonstrated his rookie season that he likely can’t catch full time.
Based on what happens in the AFL, the Mariners could stick to a Jaso-Montero tandem heading into spring training if they believe Zunino might make the team out of camp or soon after. Or, they could go shopping for another stopgap, veteran catcher this winter to fill the void until Zunino arrives.
Zunino understands how valuable the glove part of his game is.
“I like to think of myself as defense,” he said. “You just want to always go and help a pitching staff out and just be solid back there. And that’s what helps out the most.
“Obviously, if you can give up fewer runs than you score, you’re going to win. So, I’m just helping pitchers get through their innings and trying to learn (about) them as best I can. Hitting is just a plus on top of that.”
With Zduriencik and Wedge watching, Zunino threw out the only player who tried to steal in his Arizona debut. The Mariners like the way he has worked with pitchers since being drafted.
“He knows how to run a pitching staff well,” said Lance Painter, pitching coach for Peoria and the Mariners’ AA team. “He was telling me the situations he went through in Florida, and they supposedly had a real good pitching staff there. So, it wasn’t overwhelming for him at all to go from Everett to AA.”
Painter said he looks for a catcher who can “game call” and control the game from behind the plate. It was evident, he added, that Zunino already had a feel for what the AA squad was trying to do with pitchers and didn’t need much time to catch on.
“He got to know that pitching staff very quickly,” Painter said. “He was good to work with.”
Zunino hasn’t had time to get to know Seattle’s major-league pitchers yet, other than what he sees on television or reads. But he’s ready to learn.
“I’m just going to keep on playing for now because that’s what I like doing anyway,” he said. “After that, if they need me and want me up there, I’ll be ready.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com