About the only one not clamoring for a quick call-up to the big leagues is the Mariners' prize catching prospect himself.
Catcher Mike Zunino has lived life on the fast track from the moment he signed with the Mariners last July. Never has there been a doubt where he’s headed; the only mystery has been when he’s going to get there.
With Zunino now in Tacoma, just one stop away from the majors, that question is becoming ever more prominent — particularly since he has started his Class AAA career with a vengeance: four homers and 18 runs batted in during his first seven games.
Throw in the early-season struggles of players like Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak, and there’s already a clamor among some Mariners fans for Zunino.
Just about the only one who’s not buzzing about when Zunino will get the call is Zunino himself. But that should not be a surprise; just 22, Zunino has already displayed a wisdom beyond his years.
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“I’ve got a lot to take care of here,” he said Monday before the Rainiers’ game with Salt Lake at Cheney Stadium.
Sounds corny, but Zunino is sincere. He recognizes it’s too soon to be impatient, considering he was in college at the University of Florida at this time last year, still nearly two months shy of being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
He also knows that his time is coming, and he wants to be ready when it does.
“Obviously, you have the aspirations and dreams to do that,” he said of the big-league call. “When you’re almost a city away and you feel like you can get there, it gives a little bit of extra motivation. It keeps the work ethic up and the concentration up even higher.”
As always with top prospects, there is a natural tension between the urge to move them up to the majors, and the trepidation over doing so too soon. Zunino has conquered every challenge thus far in his brief career; but the major leagues is obviously a huge step, especially at a position as challenging as catcher.
Already, he has hit a bit of a slowdown offensively. After a 9-for-16 start, rife with extra-base-hits and RBI, Zunino went 2 for 17 in his next four games, and brought a more mortal .303 average into Monday’s game. And after going 0 for 3 with a walk against Salt Lake, Zunino is down to .278.
Not that that’s bad. Dealing with adversity is a big part of the minor-league testing ground.
“The last couple of days, he’s probably swung at some balls he didn’t swing at early,” Tacoma manager Daren Brown said before the game. “We’re talking about a young hitter here. More experienced guys, older guys in this league, are going to find out if he can handle the fastball in. Then they’re going to find out if he’s going to chase the off-speed down.
“They’re going to try to find some spot they think he’s vulnerable. He’s going to have to continue to make adjustments. Obviously, he’s shown us in the short period of time early, he’s going to make them.”
Amid the hyperbole surrounding Zunino’s torrid start — his 18 RBI tied Albuquerque’s Scott Van Slyke for most in the minor leagues, despite appearing in four fewer games than Van Slyke — Brown takes pains to be realistic in his assessment, though he’s high on Zunino’s potential. Perhaps that comes with spending 13 years managing in the minors and watching phenoms get overhyped too soon.
“You have to remember where this kid was at last year,” Brown said. “He’s gotten off to a good start, and to me, it’s a start. I’m probably a little more cautious, because I just want to see him play. I think right now he just needs to play.
“I always feel like the player will let us know when he’s ready. More times than not, I’ve found that’s kind of the way it goes.”
Zunino knows that he’s going to be tested by pitchers probing for his weaknesses. Already, he’s getting fewer fastballs, and he knows he must show he can handle breaking balls.
“To be a complete hitter, you have to,” he said. “You can’t be good at hitting just one pitch. Obviously, I love to hit fastballs in fastball counts, but I know that’s not always going to happen. So I need to be good at hitting all pitches in all counts.”
Brown notes that Zunino “wants to learn, and he’s asking all the right questions, whether it’s defensively or offensively.”
Chris Gwynn, the Mariners’ director of player development, loves Zunino’s intangibles, too.
“His leadership skills are off the chart,” he said.
But Gwynn also covets Zunino’s tangibles.
“It’s been great,” said Gwynn, who attended Monday’s Tacoma game. “Watching him take charge of the staff, which is what I look for first. He’s worked with good pitchers already. He’s swinging the bat well, driving in runs, cashing in on his opportunities. What is there to say? He’s doing everything we want him to do.”
Zunino’s call-up date could well be affected by contractual matters; top prospects often don’t come up until mid-June to avoid Super 2 arbitration status down the road. Myriad other factors will come into play, including the performance of current Mariners, and Zunino’s own development.
“You just know when it’s time,” Gwynn said. “He’s passed every test so far with flying colors, and he’s doing well now. You also want him to be in the right opportunity. Sometimes, that doesn’t present itself until it’s time.
“Those are questions for Jack (Zduriencik), but on my end, I just look for his overall game. He’s gotten better since we signed him, I know that. He’s a hard worker. You don’t really worry about him. You’re just glad he’s on your team.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry.