Second-year C Mike Zunino will try to break the recent string of Mariners at his spot who didn’t succeed at the plate or in the field at the big league level.
It’s not as if the Mariners at any point held open tryouts for their “catcher of the future.” They didn’t ignore the old baseball adage that says a good team has to be strong up the middle, starting at catcher. Since Dan Wilson retired after the 2005 season, the club spent considerable money and draft picks in an attempt to find a backstop that could play (at the least) average defense, hit for power and sustain a batting average above the Mendoza Line.
It just hasn’t panned out.
The first misstep came in 2005 when they selected with the third overall draft pick Jeff Clement of USC. Clement was a power-hitting lefty with a smooth, pull swing that seemed ideal for Safeco Field’s accessible right-field bleachers (326 feet down the line). Because of a knee injury and an inability to adjust to big league pitching, Clement was a massive bust, hitting .237/.309/.393 in parts of two seasons before the club included him in a July 2009 trade to Pittsburgh in return for pitcher Ian Snell and shortstop Jack Wilson.
In 2010, the Mariners gave catcher Adam Moore, an impressive, country-strong prospect developed in their minor league system, every chance to win the starting job. In 60 games, Moore batted .195 (40 for 205), had a WAR of -0.5 and was among the American League leaders in passed balls. In July 2012, the Royals claimed Moore off waivers. He looks to be on his way out of professional baseball: Last season for the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, Moore didn’t hit above .200 in 41 games.
From 2006-09, there was Kenji Johjima, a decorated catcher from Japan who hit for average and decent power (.268/.310/.411) but received criticism for a game-calling strategy in which he asked the Mariners staff to deviate from their “out-pitch” as a way to surprise hitters. Accepted practice in Japan, the style was met with skepticism in the U.S. His limited English skills were no help.
By the middle of the 2009 season, when it was Felix Hernandez’s turn in the rotation, Johjima was benched for either Rob Johnson or Jamie Burke. In 2010, Johjima returned to his home country and finish his career with the Hanshin Tigers.
From 2011-12, there was catcher Miguel Olivo. Nobody wants to talk about Olivo.
So, fair or not, it’s with much hesitation that many Mariners fans place hope in Mike Zunino, the 22-year-old expected to start the 2014 season. As a rookie last season, Zunino, who led the University of Florida to three College World Series appearances and won the 2012 Golden Spikes Award, the top honor for a position player in college baseball, batted .214 in 52 games.
Since Zunino and management admitted he was rushed to the majors after veteran catcher Kelly Shoppach was released and Jesus Montero demoted to Triple-A Tacoma, expectations for Zunino in 2014 are high.