June 12, 2013
The Situation: With suspect talent behind the dish at the major league level, the Mariners are calling up their catcher of the future to help provide a spark in the present. You can question the motives behind the move, as the unattractive whiff of desperation can be found if you really want to find it, but the position is in need of an upgrade, and Zunino is the beneficiary of the opportunity.
Background: After a standout college career at the University of Florida, Zunino was popped with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft. As a dual-threat catcher with some polish, Zunino was seen by many as a fast-track candidate to the highest level, a player who could start providing a return on Seattle’s initial $4M investment without a lengthy trek through the minor leagues. It was all sunshine and roses after he signed, as the then 21-year-old was the darling of the Northwest League, hitting a robust .373/.474/.736 in 29 games before a late-season promotion to Double-A, where he continued to impress with the stick.
The results this season haven’t been quite as positive for the young catcher, as Triple-A arms have been able to exploit his approach and tease out the swing-and-miss in his game. The power looks the part, but is often predicated on the mistakes of fringe pitching and the offense-friendly environments of the Pacific Coast League.
Scouting Report: While his collegiate accolades, draft placement, and early professional success would seem to suggest that Zunino is among the top prospects in the game and a future all-star in the majors, the scouting reports often paint a very different picture. At the plate, Zunino has skill with the bat, with legit pop and extra-base hit potential; he’s not a middle-of-the-order impact type of bat, but he has more offensive potential than the average backstop. Of course, his bat has been the recipient of a lot of hype because of the position Zunino plays, but both his swing and his approach could limit some of his offensive value, especially against high-level arms.
I was able to watch Zunino quite a bit during spring training, and the holes in his game show up when he’s matched against pitchers with legit stuff. His load and his path into the hitting zone didn’t raise any red flags, but the trigger itself wasn’t especially explosive (fast) or short to the ball. He crushed pitches that were left out over the plate, as he was able to get extension and drive the ball into the right-center-field gap, a place where his power looked very comfortable. Inside velocity was another story, as he struggled to get around on balls at the hands and above, mostly because of the trigger and the length of the swing. Zunino tracks the ball well and appears to knows the strike zone, but he would expand to chase breaking balls and struggled to adjust his swing plane to vertical movement.
Time after time, Zunino took advantage of mistakes while losing the battle against stuff. The hit tool grades out in the 5 (average) range, meaning he has a chance to hit .265-plus if he can cut down on some of the swing-and-miss. The power is closer to a 5 than a 6 (plus), and you can see 15-20 home runs if everything clicks. Most teams in the league would salivate over a .265-plus hitter with 20 bombs coming from behind the plate, so it’s not like the projection is unattractive. It’s just not world changing.
The reviews of Zunino’s work behind the plate continue to be mixed. I thought it was a little better than advertised, but you can still see room for improvement with the receiving, as the glove does have a tendency to drift laterally. The footwork isn’t bad, and the arm is strong enough for good catch-and-throw skills, but the overall package behind the dish is more solid-average than spectacular.
Zunino is a role 5 player at a premium position, so he has a good chance of providing more value than the average major league regular. With continued development on both sides of the ball, he would have first-division potential (even all-star potential if everything clicks) because of the scarcity of his skill-set at catcher. Seattle is far from an ideal hitting environment, and major league arms are vastly superior to the pitchers found in the PCL, so it’s not a given that Zunino will find success in Seattle, fresh out of the gate or miles beyond it. But dual-threat backstops are extremely valuable, and if the brain trust of the Mariners have any hope for an extended stay in the Northwest, prospects like Zunino need to turn into the players their projections suggest is possible. At this point, a cheer for Zunino is a cheer for a front office that desperately needs the applause. —Jason Parks
Fantasy Impact: Catcher was supposed to be a position of strength this season in Seattle, at least on offense. Jesus Montero was a breakout candidate, and Zunino was supposed to be right there to take the reins if anything went wrong. But something happened on the way to salvation: Montero got busted back to Triple-A, and Zunino has struggled.
In dynasty and keeper leagues, Zunino should be owned across the board. He still has the capability to be one of the top 10 fantasy catchers, but that’s not likely to happen in 2013. As far as redraft leagues, Zunino is worth an add in two-catcher, AL-only, and deep mixed (16-plus teams) formats because of the aforementioned power. If he plays the remainder of the season in Seattle, I would expect him to hit around 12 homers with a middling average, somewhere in the .240 range. Sure, there's upside on top of that, but expecting more is dangerous. In AL-only leagues where Zunino is unowned, I'd be willing to throw $8–10 on him—and if it's a two-catcher AL-only format, I'd bump that up to $14–17. —Bret Sayre
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProfessorParks