Florida catcher Mike Zunino was the Mariners' first-round pick Monday.

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The Mariners officially selected Mike Zunino with the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s MLB draft at about 4:30 Monday afternoon. But their infatuation with the University of Florida catcher started long ago.

Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara first scouted Zunino as a high schooler at Mariner High School (an omen if there ever was one) in Cape Coral, Fla. And when Zunino chose to attend college rather than sign with the A’s, who drafted him in the 30th round in 2009, the Mariners continued to follow his progress closely.

“We’ve watched him for three years,” McNamara said. “He’s steady. He doesn’t jump out and wow you like some other players. But what you get at the end of the day is a steady, hard-nosed, tough kid who’s got power and can really catch.”

The Mariners, of course, made a splash last winter by trading for a young catcher, Jesus Montero, whose defensive skills have always been questioned. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was asked about the ramifications of Zunino’s selection on Montero’s future behind the plate.

“We’ll see what happens as we go forward,” he said. “You never have enough catchers. Fortunately, in our league, we have a DH. As you move forward, things happen. If you like a player, you take him and let it fall into place. We do think this guy is a very nice receiver. We like Montero an awful lot. They’ll both be in our plans as we move forward.”

Zduriencik said Zunino could be on a “similar path” as Danny Hultzen, who was drafted No. 1 last year with the second overall pick. The difference is that with the signing date moved up by a month, to July 13, Zunino could play in the minors this year even if he goes to the deadline. Hultzen’s pro debut was in the Arizona Fall League, and he started this season at Class AA. Most people expect Hultzen to be in the big leagues at some point this year.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t take a college position player three if we didn’t think his path was quicker than the norm,” McNamara said.

Zunino said his defense “is what really defines me as a player. I take pride in my defense, whether it’s calling games or receiving or blocking. I just want to be a good, solid figure back there and help the pitcher out. Whatever I can do with the bat, I just try to do to help the team out.”

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Zunino, a junior, is hitting .316 with 18 homers and 60 runs batted in, following a sophomore year in which he batted .371 with 19 homers and was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.

He was Baseball America’s second-rated draft prospect behind Byron Buxton, a high-school outfielder who went second to the Twins. The Astros pulled a surprise with the No. 1 overall pick by taking high-school shortstop Carlos Correa. That left the Mariners with the first crack at any pitcher on the board, but they opted to go with a catcher, as they did with the No. 3 overall pick in 2005 (Jeff Clement).

“There’s a lot I like about Mike Zunino,” McNamara said. “His character, his integrity, the family he comes from. We talk about it all the time in our meetings: He’s a winning player with character. Obviously, you have to have talent to be the No. 3 pick in the country. He’s a good defensive player, he has extra-base power, and he’s a leader.”

So keen was the Mariners’ interest in Zunino that McNamara and four Mariners scouts dined at the Zunino home during this past offseason to get to know Mike better. His father, Greg Zunino, is a well-regarded area scout for the Cincinnati Reds.

“Mike and Tom were off to the side talking about setting up hitters and all the players he’d faced that year,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik related. “Here’s everyone else at the table eating, and here’s Mike and Mac over in the corner discussing how they’re going to pitch to certain guys. Mac walked out saying, he’s a baseball rat. He loves the game.”

Zunino said of the dinner, “We got to know each other extremely well. We talked baseball, we talked life. We just talked about everything. We got to know one another and get on a good relationship with each other. I was extremely happy to have that, and I think it turned out extremely well.

“It definitely gave me a little bit of a feel (for the Mariners). It was the only team that had done that. It definitely showed they had interest. It was one of those things that helped me breathe a little easier.”


• Milwaukee picked catcher Clint Coulter of Union High in Vancouver with the 27th overall pick. With the 54th pick, Philadelphia picked right-hander Mitch Gueller of W.F. West of Chehalis.

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Top five picks in Monday’s baseball draft:
Pick Team Player, position School
1 Houston Carlos Correa, SS Puerto Rico BB Academy
2 Minnesota Byron Buxton, OF Appling County High, Ga.
3 Seattle Mike Zunino, C Florida
4 Baltimore Kevin Gausman, RHP LSU
5 Kansas City Kyle Zimmer, RHP San Francisco