Saving Mike Zunino


On Wednesday, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reported that the Seattle Mariners were “very close” to making a deal for a catcher. As always, any mention of any potential deal involving the Mariners by any national correspondent energizes the fan base and spurs rampant speculation about trade targets and who may be leaving the Seattle organization as a result of a deal.

Perhaps, fans are even more anxious this year since the team – which was highly touted before the start of the season – is on the verge of falling out of playoff contention and the July 31 trading deadline is quickly approaching. Adding a piece – any piece – would signal to fans that the Mariners haven’t given up on the 2015 season.

Although there haven’t been any new developments since Morosi’s initial report, it’s no surprise that the Mariners would be looking to upgrade their catching corps. Adding a more complete player to be either a backup for starter Mike Zunino or a viable alternative to replace Zunino in the event of injury or poor performance makes sense. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill further discussed Morosi’s report and the players most likely to be available if the Mariners were to make a deal this month.

Other than Robinson Canó, Zunino has been the most frequent target of fan backlash thanks to his poor offensive numbers. That’s why some fans are hoping that Seattle gets a replacement for Zunino and not just a backup. But, is that a fair and reasonable approach to take with the Mariners’ young catcher? When you take a longer look at Zunino’s path to the majors and the support he’s received since debuting in 2013, you may agree with me that Mike Zunino needs to be saved and not be replaced.

The Zunino file
Although the 24-year-old has demonstrated the ability to hit the long ball, his overall numbers have been well below league-average during his three-year major league career. In April, Jason discussed Zunino’s offensive approach in great detail. At the all-star break, he has a career triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage – of .190/.253/.357 during 946 plate appearances.

Zunino isn’t going to be –and was never projected to be – a high on-base percentage hitter. But, his right-handed power is real and not easy to find in a catcher. To put his slugging prowess into perspective, take a look at his standing with respect to Mariners catchers from the past. Zunino’s 36 career home runs ranks number-five among catchers in the team’s 38-year history.

Player          HR   Age    G   PA    H  2B 3B RBI  SO HBP   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
Dan Wilson      88 25-36 1251 4500 1071 207 13 508 739  24 .262 .309 .384 .693
Dave Valle      72 23-32  846 2835  588 104 10 318 356  60 .235 .311 .371 .682
Kenji Johjima   48 30-33  462 1722  431  84  1 198 148  37 .268 .310 .411 .721
Miguel Olivo    42 25-33  321 1160  232  45  3 123 329   4 .210 .239 .370 .610
Mike Zunino     36 22-24  264  946  164  31  2  94 307  24 .190 .253 .357 .609
Bob Stinson     26 31-34  372 1195  257  35  4 123 149  17 .253 .341 .372 .713
Tom Lampkin     21 35-37  191  575  132  27  3  79  90  15 .257 .326 .444 .771

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/17/2015.

The current Mariners’ starting catcher has accomplished this feat with less than 1,000 plate appearances compared to team record holder Dan Wilson, who hit his 88 career homers as a Mariners catcher in 4,500 plate appearances. Zunino also compares well among his contemporaries. Since his first full season in 2013, he ranks number-eight among major league catchers.

Player            HR From   To   Age   G   PA   H 2B 3B RBI  BB  SO HBP   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
Evan Gattis       58 2013 2015 26-28 299 1123 261 51  5 171  55 254  13 .249 .293 .474 .767
Brian McCann      57 2013 2015 29-31 314 1230 272 38  2 187  95 197  18 .246 .313 .439 .752
Buster Posey      51 2013 2015 26-28 378 1541 418 76  3 219 141 169  12 .305 .371 .477 .847
Salvador Perez    45 2013 2015 23-25 367 1436 373 65  5 187  48 192   7 .272 .298 .425 .723
Jason Castro      39 2013 2015 26-28 310 1240 268 67  3 131 104 347  13 .241 .311 .412 .723
Wilin Rosario     39 2013 2015 24-26 289 1051 281 57  2 154  42 219   2 .281 .309 .459 .768
Russell Martin    38 2013 2015 30-32 316 1273 276 56  2 163 148 249  29 .255 .357 .415 .772
Mike Zunino       36 2013 2015 22-24 264  946 164 31  2  94  50 307  24 .190 .253 .357 .609
Yan Gomes         35 2013 2015 25-27 262  994 253 50  5 122  45 231  11 .274 .311 .452 .763
Wilson Ramos      35 2013 2015 25-27 235  946 237 33  0 144  44 150   0 .265 .297 .419 .716
Devin Mesoraco    34 2013 2015 25-27 240  843 190 39  1 124  70 173  13 .253 .324 .443 .767
Miguel Montero    34 2013 2015 29-31 325 1290 264 42  0 146 140 271  17 .236 .326 .365 .691
Jonathan Lucroy   33 2013 2015 27-29 349 1447 368 86  9 168 131 168   7 .284 .350 .440 .790
Tyler Flowers     32 2013 2015 27-29 273  914 191 34  1  95  48 314  15 .225 .278 .381 .659
J.P. Arencibia    31 2013 2014 27-28 201  719 128 27  0  90  28 210  10 .189 .231 .366 .597
Yasmani Grandal   30 2013 2015 24-26 225  808 164 37  1  94 118 182   4 .242 .354 .432 .786
Derek Norris      30 2013 2015 24-26 310 1087 243 55  2 130 109 238   7 .252 .331 .406 .737
Matt Wieters      30 2013 2015 27-29 200  780 177 41  1 108  53 145   0 .249 .295 .437 .732

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/17/2015.

The recent hiring of Edgar Martínez as the team’s hitting coach provides a new opportunity for Zunino get help with continuing his development as a hitter. Early returns haven’t been much better than Zunino’s overall season numbers. Since the arrival of the Mariners legend on June 20, Seattle’s starting catcher is batting .167 – which is only seven points higher than his overall 2015 batting average. In fairness to both the new hitting coach and his protégé, getting more offensive production from Zunino is a long-term project that’s made more challenging by the rigors of being the team’s everyday catcher.

Despite his sub-par performance at the plate, Zunino continues to be that everyday catcher because of his superb skills behind the plate. The number-three overall selection during the 2012 Major League Baseball amateur draft has been regarded as a defensive whiz behind the plate since his college days. As a major leaguer, he’s been highly regarded for his pitch-framing abilities, plus his innate ability to block pitches permits Seattle pitchers to feel confident in throwing a pitch in the dirt regardless of the game situation or the balls and strikes count on a hitter.

Accelerated arrival
In retrospect, Zunino’s quick ascension to the big leagues significantly impacted his growth as a hitter  – the former Florida Gator was rushed to the majors at age-22 after only 96 minor league games and less than 365 days after being drafted.

Year   Age      Tm   Lg Lev Aff  G  PA   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS
2012    21 Everett NORW  A- SEA 29 133  41 10  0 10  35 18 26 .373 .474 .736 1.210
2012    21 Jackson SOUL  AA SEA 15  57  17  4  0  3   8  5  7 .333 .386 .588  .974
2012    21  Peoria AZFL     Fal 19  86  23  4  2  2  15  5 20 .288 .337 .463  .800
2013    22  Tacoma  PCL AAA SEA 52 229  46 12  3 11  43 17 66 .227 .297 .478  .775
2 Seasons                       96 419 104 26  3 24  86 40 99 .286 .365 .571  .937

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/17/2015.

Fans tend to forget that Zunino was only hitting .227 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League before his promotion to Seattle. The primary motivation for making Zunino the first position player from the 2012 draft to debut in the majors was need. Jesús Montero was lost to a knee injury and a subsequent performance enhancing drug suspension, while other 2013 catchers included Kelly Shoppach, Henry Blanco, Humberto Quintero, Brandon Bantz, and Jesús Sucre – all of these players either under-performed and/or were injured during the course of the season.

Having such a poor group of alternatives wasn’t Zunino’s fault – that responsibility rests at the feet of front office management. The young catcher he was clearly ready to start from a defensive perspective. Unfortunately for the Mariners receiver and the team, his offensive prowess has never caught up with his glove.

Using rear-view mirror perspective, more minor league seasoning may have benefited him. Learning to hit in the majors is a daunting task, especially for someone playing the most demanding defensive position on the field. But, the team needed him and his progression as a hitter was stunted. The issue at hand is finding a way to reboot Zunino, while trying to remain in contention. Adding a veteran presence would go a long way towards achieving both goals.

Déjà vu all over again
Going into the season, the Mariners knew that they were woefully thin at the catcher spot and they initially addressed the situation by acquiring Welington Castillo from the Chicago Cubs on May 19 for right-handed relief pitcher Yoervis Medina. That deal added needed catching depth, plus a quality right-handed bat capable of being a pinch-hitter or even designated hitter when Castillo wasn’t subbing for Zunino. Just 15 days later, the team dealt Castillo – along with reliever Dominic Leone and minor leaguers Gabby Guerrero and Jack Reinheimer – to the Arizona Diamondbacks for slugger Mark Trumbo and pitcher Vidal Nuno.

From Seattle’s perspective, trading Castillo was necessary in order to add a power bat to a lineup that’s struggled to score enough runs on a consistent basis during 2015. Nevertheless, the loss of Castillo left the team – once again – looking for an answer for their backup catching situation. Since the trade of Castillo, Seattle has turned back to Sucre to spell Zunino. Although the 27-year-old’s defense has been reliable, his offense has been virtually non-existent. In 2015, the right-handed hitter has only one hit in 26 at bats. Once again, the Mariners are now in the market to get a veteran backup.

Workload intensive
The lack of a serviceable backup has led to Zunino piling up the innings during the first half of the season. At the all-star break, Zunino’s 665 innings were the second most in the majors with only St. Louis Cardinal Yadier Molina logging more time – 704 innings. During the first three months of the season, Sucre has only started three times-per-month – Castillo started five times during his brief two-week stay in Seattle. Since Castillo’s departure, Sucre has only started five times in the 36 games. Zunino’s availability is commendable, but not having an acceptable understudy to spot him could negatively impact his late season performance and it’s certainly not helping him with the bat.

Contingencies
If Zunino were lost to the disabled list, the only internal options available are the light-hitting Sucre and Class-AAA catchers John Hicks and Steve Baron– both defensively inclined. Hicks is currently batting .232, while Barron is hitting .342 since his promotion from Class-AA Jackson. Barron’s initial success as a Rainier is impressive, but it’s a small sample size – 83 at-bats – and it doesn’t reflect his .228 average during a six-year minor league career. That doesn’t mean that his progress should be completely dismissed. As Jason noted after talking to the 24-year-old today, Barron and Hicks might be able to provide more Sucre right now, but both need more time to develop. Otherwise, they’d fall into the same trap that Seattle set for Zunino.

The next up-and-coming catcher in the Mariners’ system is Tyler Marlette, who is Prospect Insider’s number-ten Mariners prospect. He currently has a .243/.309/.378 slash at Class-AA Jackson, so he’s not ready for prime time either. In an effort to look outside the organization for a low cost alternative, the Mariners recently signed veteran Erik Kratz to a minor-league deal to “kick the tires” and quickly parted ways with the 35-year-old after 10 games. The bottom line is that there are no clear-cut minor league options to replace Sucre let alone fill in as the Mariners’ starting catcher.

What’s next?
It’s likely that the Mariners will make that deal for another catcher. It may not happen today, but I expect to see a new catcher on the roster by the end of the month. Optimally, they would acquire an affordable asset who’ll be under team control beyond 2015, can hit, and has starting experience – someone like Castillo.

Unfortunately for Seattle and their fans, those kind of players aren’t easy to find and the Mariners will be competing with other teams who are also trying to upgrade their roster for a playoff push. As Jason reported today, the Mariners’ interest in acquiring a catcher may have waned a bit due to the high cost associated with getting another backstop.

Final thought
As I stated earlier, Zunino doesn’t need to be replaced, he needs to be saved. Specifically, his offensive development needs to have a chance to flourish before the team gives up on him as a starting catcher. The most probable scenario is that the Mariners will acquire a catcher who can play about three times a week so that Zunino can have more down time to help preserve his health and permit him to focus on his offense with Martinez.

At the young age of 24, Zunino continues to be his team’s catcher of the future. The only thing that could change that trajectory would be the acquisition of a starting-level catcher with a proven offensive record. Is that possible? Sure. But, that would signal that the team has given up on the former Gator and I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.

 

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