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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 13, 2012 at 12:06 PM

Mike Zunino looks like a catcher on the fast track

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(Mike Zunino takes BP at Safeco Field after signing his contract in early July. Photo by Associated Press).

By now you’ve probably heard the news: Mike Zunino has been promoted from Everett of the rookie Northwest League all the way up to Double-A Jackson. It’s a big leap, but it has been obvious for awhile Zunino has needed a new challenge after tearing up Everett, to the tune (hummmmm) of a .373 batting average (41-for-110) in 29 games, with nine doubles, 10 homers, 35 runs batted in, a .474 on- base percentage and .736 slugging percentage for a 1.210 OPS.

That’s called total domination, which is great to see for the No. 3 overall pick of this year’s draft. I’ve felt all along that the earlier signing deadline this year was a win-win development for the team and the prospect, and Zunino is a case study. Contrast with another high Mariners’ pick, Dustin Ackley in 2009 (No. 2 overall), who signed too late to play minor-league ball that season because he went down to the wire (as most high picks do). Down to the wire in 2009 meant signing on Aug. 19, too late to get Ackley out with a minor league team. Down to the wire this year meant July 2, which allowed Zunino to get nearly two months of minor-league playing time.

No question that will get Zunino to the major leagues quicker. How quickly? If he keeps progressing the way he is now (and no, I don’t expect him to hit .373 in the Southern League), I could see Zunino up with the Mariners for a taste of the majors in the second half next year (perhaps as a September callup), and competing for the starting job in spring training of 2014.

It’s a rapid pace, but Zunino got a head start on Ackley, who was up in the majors as a regular in June of 2011, after just one full minor-league season and a couple of months of another. You could argue now that Ackley needed more minor-league seasoning, but everyone was pretty pleased with his adaptaion to the majors at the end of last year.

The comparison I make is to a fellow highly drafted catcher from major Florida colleges, Buster Posey of the Giants. Posey was the No. 5 overall pick in 2008 out of Florida State. Zunino is the No. 3 overall pick in 2012 out of Florida. Both were phenoms, winning the Johnny Bench and Golden Spikes Awards in their final collegiate year. Posy had better offensive numbers his final year at FSU (.463/.566/.879 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs, compared to .322/,394/.669 with 19 homers and 67 RBIs for Zunino at Florida), but keep in mind that Posey played with the fully potent aluminum bats, while Zunino played his last two years of college with the new “BBCOR” bats that had considerably less pop. Offensive numbers have declined markedly in college, and you simply can’t compare statistics from the two eras. It’s like MLB stats in the pre- and post steroids era — 40 homers now mean a lot more than they did in 2000.

Knowing that, I’d say Posey and Zunino are pretty comparable coming out of college. Posey signed in time to play just 10 games in 2008, just three of them in the Northwest League, and the rest in the Arizona rookie league. In 2009, he started out in Class A San Jose, did extremely well in 80 games (.326/.428/.540) and was promoted to Triple-A Fresno, where he did great in 35 games (.321/.391/.511). The Giants called him up for a cup of coffee in 2009 (seven games, in which he hit .118 — not a sign of things to come). In 2010, Posey started out in Fresno again, but after 47 games (.349/.442/.552), he was called up to the Giants to stay. on May 29. He was something of a sensation, hitting .305 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs as the regular catcher, and by October, Posey was playing in the World Series.

I’m not saying Zunino is the next Buster Posey. Posey is on the verge of superstardom (having survived last year’s ugly ankle injury) and would be an MVP candidate this year if not for Andrew McCutchen. I’m just saying that the timetable could be similar. Of course, Zunino’s performance will dictate his ascenion, for the most part. He’s bound to hit a rough spell — everyone does. But he definitely has started his professional career looking like someone on the fast track.

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