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

April 9, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Zunino off to scorching start with Tacoma, could soon force some issues (w/full minor-league report)

Photo by Associated Press

Photo by Associated Press

Here is today’s Mariner minor-league report.

So far, Mike Zunino has been up to every challenge thrown at him since the Mariners drafted him No. 3 overall out of the University of Florida 10 months ago. The catcher went to Single-A Everett after signing and hit .373 in 29 games, with 10 homers and 35 RBIs. He went to Double-A Jackson and hit .333 with three homers and a .974 OPS in 15 games. Then, in eight playoff games with Jackson, Zunino hit .379 (11-for-29) with three more homers. In the Arizona Fall League, facing the top prospects in baseball, at the end of an exhausting season, he hit .288 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 19 games. He showed well this year in spring training.

And now, Zunino is absolutely tearing up Triple-A in the very early going with Triple-A Tacoma. Last night, in the Rainiers’ 9-3 win over Sacramento, Zunino knocked in four runs and barely missed a cycle with a homer, double and single (though for a catcher, lacking a triple might not qualify as “barely”; then again, Zunino already has a triple this season).

In four games with the Rainiers, here are Zunino’s stats: a .500 average (8-for-16), three doubles, a triple, three homers, 12 RBIs, a .500 batting average, .526 on-base percentage, 1.375 slugging percentage, and 1.901 OPS. He leads the minors in RBIs and extra-base hits (7), and is one of only nine players in the minors to have hit at least three homers this season.

Yes, it’s a small sample size. Yes, the Rainiers are raking across the board with a .341 team average. Zunino is not even the top hitter for average on the team. Eric Thames is at .550, and Endy Chavez at .526. But Zunino has an OPS nearly 600 points higher than either one of them. And let’s face it: Zunino is the one with the shining future in the Mariners’ organization, not Thames or Chavez.

When will that future begin at the major-league level? You can’t bank everything on five games. But if he continues to scorch the ball, the Mariners are going to face some tough questions with regards to Zunino. But great questions, right?

For one thing, there is the mid-June or so date which teams point to (but never publicly) with top prospects to keep them from becoming “Super Two” arbitration eligible down the road. That keeps them, potentially, from hitting the big money for one more season. The exact date changes every season, but teams have a way of calculating it pretty closely. Dustin Ackley fell into that category, pretty clearly, in 2011 when he stayed in the minors until June 17. It happens routinely each year across the majors. But the  Mariners have also shown, with the likes of Michael Pineda and now Brandon Maurer, that they aren’t above risking the early arbitration eligibility.

One other rough date to think about: Zunino would need to stay down in the minors for about 12 days to lose 2013 in counting toward his six years needed for free agency. That would mean he would be clear in about two days. If you must know, here’s the rule from the collective bargaining agreement (keep in mind the championship season started March 31 and ends Sept. 29):

1) One full day of Major League service will be credited for each day of the championship season a Player is on a Major League Club’s Active List. A total of 172 days of Major League credited service will constitute one full year of credited service. A Player may not be credited with more than one year of credited service, 172 days, in one championship season. Major League service will be computed commencing with the date of the first regularly scheduled championship season game, through and including the date of the last regularly scheduled championship season game. This rule shall apply uniformly to all Players and all Clubs notwithstanding differences in a particular Club’s schedule.

If and when Zunino comes up, he’s going to come up to play, I would assume. And that could obviously have ramifications for Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak or even Kendrys Morales. If the former is struggling, he still has minor-league options, so he could go down to Tacoma to work things out. If Montero is hitting but Smoak isn’t, well, Smoak has options, too. Montero could slide over to DH, and Kendrys Morales to first base. And if both are hitting, but Zunino forces his way onto the scene, well, this is way premature, but Morales is a free agent at the end of the season (and a Scott Boras client, so unlikely to sign an in-season extension), so thus a possible trade-deadline candidate. But if he continues to hit like he has been (and appears capable of sustaining), and combines with Michael Morse to give the Mariners the formidable middle of the order they’ve coveted for so long, Morales would be very painful to depart with — even with the prospect of losing him to free agency after the season.

As you can see, the Zunino question could get very complicated. Or perhaps it will solve itself. For now, the Mariners will merely sit back and let it play out. There is a saying in baseball that players make the decisions themselves, with their play. And as I wrote in my column from last night’s game, manager Eric Wedge objected when I asked about Dustin Ackley’s “slow start.”

He replied,”You’re not allowed to say slow start after a week. You’re just not allowed to do it. We’ve hit some balls here early on that will eventually translate. We’ve got to give them some time to settle in. Then you’ll find out where you are. Then if there’s any adjustments you need to make, you make them.”

So the season will play on, and at some point, the Mariners will decide if they need to make adjustments — and if Mike Zunino will be part of them.

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