Zunino pumped for first Major League camp
Catching prospect excited to gain experience with Mariners in Peoria
SEATTLE -- Every baseball fan perks up upon hearing the words "pitchers and catchers report in X days" as Spring Training approaches. So imagine the buzz Mike Zunino feels when he hears that phrase as he prepares for his first Major League camp with the Mariners.
"Oh man," Zunino said with a grin, anticipating the start of Spring Training, which is now just a week away. "I'm just as anxious as the fans. I'm ready to go. Obviously to get invited to big league camp is an honor, and I'm just ready to go and see what those guys have and just to play with them."
Zunino, 21, is one of six catchers who'll report for duty next Tuesday in Peoria, Ariz. The team's 2012 first-round Draft pick is already ranked 23rd on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list after just two months of Minor League ball last summer, so there'll be plenty of eyes on him as he makes his first appearance with the Major League club.
The Florida native isn't spending time worrying about whether he might make the Mariners' 25-man roster to start the season or head back to the Minors for more seasoning, knowing the timetable for his arrival is largely out of his hands at this time.
"It's just about going out there and playing to the best of my abilities every day," Zunino said. "In the end, I don't have a say, and that's sort of nice, because I can just continue to work hard every day, and when they think I'm ready, that's when the jump will be made. So I'll just go in every day trying to get ready, mentally and physically, and then just take it from there."
The Mariners love everything they've seen from the Florida All-American so far, but they will take a realistic view given that Zunino's Minor League resume consists of just 34 games and 161 at-bats split between Class A Everett and Double-A Jackson last summer.
"He's definitely well ahead of most college players who come out,'' Minor League coordinator Chris Gwynn said. "Receiving wise, I think he still has stuff to learn. Offensively, he's pretty good now. But he's only had 160 to 180 at-bats in the Minors.
"That makes me nervous, in the sense that are we really preparing him for when he gets here? He still has stuff to learn both ways, but catching is such an important position, you need to make sure he's well-seasoned before he shows up here."
With that in mind, general manager Jack Zduriencik signed veterans Kelly Shoppach and Ronny Paulino to provide depth behind young starter Jesus Montero until Zunino is ready to challenge.
But Zunino clearly is on a fast track to the Majors, and carries himself with a maturity beyond his age. He led Florida to three straight College World Series appearances during his time there and won the Dick Howser Trophy, Golden Spikes Award and Johnny Bench Award last year before becoming the No. 3 overall selection in the Draft.
Zunino's whirlwind year included getting married in October to Alyssa Barry, his high school sweetheart, in the short time between the end of Minor League season and the start of Arizona Fall League action.
"We had a brief one-night honeymoon on the beach [in Florida], then we packed up and headed to Peoria for the Fall League," Zunino said. "But I keep telling her, 'I'll take you on an extended one after this season. You deserve to put up with it after all that's been going on.'
"2012 was pretty crazy," Zunino said. "2013 has been a little more relaxed. Obviously, getting the invite to big league camp and getting ready has been a lot of fun, and I'm working hard, but once 2012 ended, it was sort of nice to take a deep breath and relax."
Now Zunino is ready to strap it up again, having had a little time to rest his body after a stretch that included about 70 college games, 34 Minor League contests and 20 more Fall League outings.
His expectations for his first Major League camp? Others might worry about whether he's ready for the big leagues or can hit offspeed pitching or handle the mental grind of the Majors, but Zunino is keeping it simple.
"I'm just looking forward to meeting all the guys, learning the pitching staff and just learning the ropes," Zunino said. "I'm going to go out there and compete to the best of my abilities, but really also get to know the guys and sort of get the feel of the clubhouse and all the pitchers and what makes them successful, and help them out as much as I can."