Mike Zunino was rushed to the major leagues. This is an opinion, but it’s also generally accepted as the truth – while the amount of minor league seasoning needed varies from player to player, it’s long been thought that Zunino probably needed more than he got. He only came to the plate 505 times in the minor leagues before being called up to the Seattle Mariners, where he’s been the starter ever since.
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The quick-and-easy Zunino timeline: taken third overall in the 2012 draft, he made his minor league debut that year and made it all the way to AA, hitting like a star and living up to his “fast riser” billing. He started 2013 at AAA despite just 57 (breathtaking) plate appearances in AA. He struggled there, but was promoted to the majors after 229 plate appearances.
Zunino was supposed to be the full package – a premier defender behind the plate who could also rake. Since making his debut in 2013, Zunino has lived up to expectations defensively, establishing himself as a top-notch pitch framer and game caller. His offense has been another story – over 971 plate appearances he owns a slash line of .193/.255/.358.
So you’ve got a 24-year-old catcher who is already a world’s-best defender. He’s got natural power, but as soon as he started to struggle at the plate after an aggressive AAA assignment he was… promoted? That doesn’t seem right! What does seem right is the M’s trying to make good on Zunino’s ability by giving him a chance to develop into the hitter he should be capable of becoming. Which means an extended stay in the minor leagues.
This would be a tough pill for the team to swallow. Zunino, for all his struggles, is a real part of the team’s future, and for the last few years he’s also been a big part of the present. To take him out of the present equation would be akin to admitting that they’d made a huge mistake. The Mariners aren’t big on admitting they’ve made a mistake, and this is a particularly painful one.
The idea would be to send Zunino to AAA for as long as it takes for him to learn some plate discipline. Or, you know, maybe they could let him learn the skills, see the results, and then spend some time repeating what he’d learned. Which is exactly what they didn’t do the first time around – give him a chance to show that he could sustain his gains. They only learned that he couldn’t upon making him a big league regular.
So when should this experiment start? Right now, maybe, or at least whenever it is that the Mariners realize that 2015 is not their year. As soon as the team admits they’re out of it, the first move shouldn’t be to trade Hisashi Iwakuma or Dustin Ackley – it should be to send Zunino to AAA. Then they should plan on letting him get at least 500 plate appearances down there, giving him a second chance to develop offensively.
Who will play catcher in the major leagues between now and then? Jesus Sucre, for all I care. The goal isn’t about 2015 wins anymore, or at least, soon it shouldn’t be. Welington Castillo sure would fit well in this role, but that’s beating a dead horse at this point. The M’s can seriously run with whatever they can find the rest of the way and sign an A.J. Pierzynski for next year. It’s not hard to punt a position. The M’s are kind of experts at punting positions.
Maybe this would work, and Zunino would develop a better eye at the plate. Maybe with some time in an actual low-stakes environment the guy would be able to utilize some of his unbelievable natural power. He could improve his contact skills. Or maybe he wouldn’t do any of that. Maybe he just is the player he is today. Which wouldn’t be too surprising, given that the Mariners have had their hands on him since day one.
The only way to find out if Mike Zunino can still be developed into an MLB hitter is by giving him a chance to get some reps in the minors. Like, a lot of reps. As many as he got the first time he was in the minors, probably. The upside is that the Mariners finally gain access to Zunino’s awesome upside. The downside is that he’s just another busted prospect who actively hurts the big league team for years to come. We’ve had enough of those, and not enough stars. Might as well shoot for the stars.