Starter Taijuan Walker is untouchable, catcher Mike Zunino maybe less so, is what the Seattle Mariners front office has reportedly told Tampa Bay in recent negotiations over David Price. While fans and some members of the Mariners front office may be reluctant to even move Zunino, the 2012 3rd overall pick who entered last season as Seattle’s best prospect, according to Baseball America, they should be eager to move their talented backstop, especially if it can help net them Price. Because as it stands right now, Zunino is on the precipice of a disastrous season. Despite all evidence that he can’t handle it, the 22 year old will in all likelihood be handed the starting catching job for 2014, and it could help bring about the failure of yet another Seattle hitting prospect.
Unlike many rookies, Zunino can’t go in to the fabled sophomore slump, as he was never any good as a rookie. He is coming of a dreadful debut season in which hit .214, posted an on base percentage under .300 and, for a player known for power, had just ten extra base hits in 173 at bats. But the young catcher’s struggles were more a function of the Seattle front office’s incompetence than his own, as the young catcher was simply called up before he was ready. Zunino had torn through the minor leagues after being taken third overall in 2012, but he struggled heavily in the minors last season. When he was recalled from the minors last June, he had been hitting a paltry .238 with a .303 OBP in Triple-A Tacoma, and while he had driven out 11 home runs on the year, he hadn’t hit one in over a week and the last three he did knock out, came in the thin air of Colorado Springs. Aaron Gleeman of NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk summed it up on the day of Zunino’s promotion, “[he] clearly needs to work on some crucial skills.”
It’s not that Zunino doesn’t have the tools to succeed. He does, with excellent hands and a strong arm behind the plate and the potential to hit over thirty home runs in the majors. There is a chance that he puts it all together and plays as one of the better backstops in the game next season, but as Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus points out, he has repeatedly failed to hit major league quality stuff. Starting him now, without giving him the chance to adjust and get a confident feel for even Triple-A level pitching is equivalent to setting him up to fail.
If Seattle intends on starting him if Zunino is in the origination – and considering the fact GM Jack Zduriencik has made no public effort to acquire a catcher this offseason, they do – then they would be better off trading him before he fails to hit for a second straight season and his value depreciates significantly. It’s not that he can’t succeed after some minor league seasoning, but putting him in the lineup now, and in the spacious Safeco Field no less, will only hurt what is currently a valuable asset.