Mariners fill their Draft plate with Florida catcher
Mariners fill their plate by drafting Florida catcher
By Greg Johns
ANAHEIM -- Five months after trading for premier catching prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees, the Mariners added another big-time backstop to their organization by selecting Florida's Mike Zunino with the third pick in Monday's 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said there's room for both Montero and Zunino in the future. Montero, 22, has been splitting time behind the plate and at designated hitter this season as a rookie and Zunino certainly will need time to develop in the Minors before he's ready to compete.
"We'll see what happens as we go forward," Zduriencik said. "You never have enough catchers. As we know, you go through the course of the year and fortunately in our league you do have the DH. As you move forward, things happen. If you like the player, you take him and let it fall into place.
"We think this guy's a very nice receiver, we like Montero an awful lot and they'll both be in our plans as we move forward."
Zunino, 21, was named a first-team Louisville Slugger All-America last week by Collegiate Baseball and is a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award.
As a sophomore he was selected to the Baseball America All-America team and was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and is backing that up with another big season this spring as a junior, leading the Gators to a three-game sweep in the NCAA Gainesville Regional over the weekend.
"There's a lot I like about Mike Zunino," said Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara. "One is 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 catcher, he's got extra-base power and he's a leader."
Zunino is the seventh catcher drafted by the Mariners in the first round, but just the fourth with their first pick. Seattle selected Jason Varitek 14th overall in 1994, Ryan Christianson 11th in '99 and Jeff Clement at No. 3 in '05.
As the son of Reds scout Greg Zunino, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder grew up in the game and that background shows in his play.
"He's the best catcher in the country," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan told MLB.com. "Tremendous player. Tremendous kid. Great work ethic. Great leader. He's the total package."
Zduriencik scouted Zunino in person about six weeks ago and came away impressed.
"He's a nice looking player. He's a tough kid," Zduriencik said. "You think about that position, it's very difficult to fill it as everyone in baseball knows. I think we have a kid who has this type of pedigree and leadership skills, as well as the chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark. I thought it was a real nice package."
Zunino was drafted in the 30th round by the A's out of high school in Cape Coral, Fla., but opted for college and has had an outstanding career at Florida. He hit .371 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs and a .674 slugging percentage in 72 games as a sophomore.
Zunino is batting .316 with 18 homers, 60 RBIs and a .667 slugging percentage in 62 games this year, with 28 walks and 45 strikeouts.
As good as his offensive numbers look, the Mariners are more impressed with his defense and knowledge of the game. He's a two-time All-SEC defensive selection and he's committed just three errors this season while throwing out 31.3 percent of attempted basestealers (45-of-144).
"I just want to be a well-rounded player," Zunino said on a conference call Monday evening. "I take pride in my defense. Whether it's calling games or receiving or throwing or blocking, that's what really defines me as a player, I believe. I want to be a solid figure back there to help pitchers and then do what I can to help with the bat."
Zunino has a busy slate ahead. His Gators are headed to the NCAA Super Regionals, he's engaged to get married in October and he'll have until mid-July to sign with the Mariners under the new MLB rules.
The youngster leaves little doubt that he's eager for his pro baseball career to get started so he can get to the Majors as quickly as possible.
"I just love playing the game, so hopefully, God willing, it's as soon as possible so I can make an impact and help the organization," he said.
This was the third time in four years Seattle had a pick among the top three selections. The Mariners took North Carolina infielder Dustin Ackley at No. 2 in 2009 and Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen second last year.
Seattle had used its first pick to tab a pitcher five of the past six years with Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, Josh Fields, Phillippe Aumont and Brandon Morrow, with Ackley the lone position player to break that trend until Zunino's selection.
The Mariners weren't certain Zunino would be available with the third pick, but the Astros surprised by taking Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick and the Twins took Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton second.
Zunino was Seattle's only selection on the opening day of the three-day Draft. The Mariners' next pick comes Tuesday with the third pick in the second round, which is 64th overall after Monday's first round and compensation picks.