Much intrigue surrounds the 17 new players on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. But if GM Jerry Dipoto really wants to impress Seattle fans, he will make something out of the mess that is Mike Zunino.
So numerous are the newbies at Mariners spring training that all sorts of ice-breaker office games must be going on: Secret pals; list five favorites of anything; the thing you most want on a deserted island; the trust walk (one partner is blindfolded and the other leads him around).
Well, maybe not the blindfold one. There’s been enough blindfolds among the Mariners to last an eternity.
Besides players becoming acquainted with each other, so too must fans become acquainted with players. But getting acquainted with 17 newcomers on the 40-man roster is too much. It may be helpful to pick one, two or five of the curiosities to follow.
Hey, 1B Dae-Ho Lee, the Korean masher from Japanese baseball, dropped 45 pounds in his bid to be a 33-year-old major league rookie at a svelte 250.
RHP Jonathan Aro, 25, didn’t begin playing baseball until age 20 because of a bad case of dengue fever.
Fans of bipolar play have a hero in RHP Eric Scribner. For the A’s last season, he struck out 64 batters with just four walks, but surrendered 14 homers in 60 innings.
Over his four-year career, OF Nori Aoki has more walks (171) than strikeouts (169), making him possibly the oddest batter in MLB, where three whiffs a game seems like the major league average.
Or you can join me in tracking an oldie.
Granted, at 24, “oldie” seems wrong. But given how the Mariners have messed with his hitting, he may be MLB’s oldest 24-year-old.
Following Zunino may seem like following Dustin (“He’s dead to me”) Ackley, now with the Yankees after his career went from promising to bewildered to dismal in Seattle. But Ackley is the failure that makes Zunino the most intriguing test for the new regime of general manager Jerry Dipoto.
He has bet most of his GM capital in player development. And there is no hitter on the 40-man roster less developed than Zunino, a former No. 1 pick rushed too soon to the majors because of the Mariners’ traditional crisis at catcher.
If you were not in the sellout crowd for the Sports Salon at World Trade Center Seattle Feb. 11, you missed out on Dipoto explaining a key distinction.
He made the point that the Mariners have a good scouting department. He said the high draft picks spent on Zunino, Ackley and pitcher Danny Hultzen were decisions that he and many other GMs in the Mariners’ draft position would have made as well.
“That’s why we didn’t make a lot of changes in the scouting department,” he said. “Where we made changes was in player development.”
As longtime Mariners fans know, the difference between prospect promise and MLB delivery has been wide — until the guy gets traded, where he becomes anywhere from serviceable to All-Star.
It is Dipoto’s desire and director of player development Andy McKay’s charge to get in the heads of players and pull out their maximum potential. That doesn’t mean creating All-Stars. But it does include making Zunino, say, a .240 hitter. Which doesn’t sound like much until it’s realized that he hit .174 in 112 games — the worst hitter in MLB with at least 350 at-bats.
Once again, the Mariners are on the frontiers of human experience.
Perhaps the most enduring contribution the Mariners have made to baseball lore is the Mendoza Line, the demarcation between mediocrity and badness inadvertently bestowed upon Mario Mendoza, the good-fielding Mexican shortstop who played the 1979-80 seasons with the Mariners.
Despite hitting .198 his first year, Mendoza managed to play 148 games, a testament to how bad the Mariners were. But Kansas City’s George Brett immortalized him by declaring that hitting below .200, yet playing a full season, was the acme of MLB offensive despair.
Zunino hit .214 his rookie year of 2013 and .199 in 2014. His batting graph is destined to hit .000 in his early 30s.
He was so helpless last year — 132 strikeouts, 21 walks — that the Mariners, after firing GM Jack Zduriencik, sent Zunino in September to AAA Tacoma, where he will remain to start the season. Hired as a patch was free agent Chris Iannetta, 32, who is not exactly Pudge Rodriguez, hitting .188 in 92 games for Dipoto’s Angels last season. But that effort was worth $4.25 million in MLB’s bloated economy.
At the Mariners’ annual spring luncheon in January, Dipoto sounded eager to bring back Zunino from the professionally dead.
“This (year) is going to be about what’s best in the career development of Mike Zunino,” Dipoto said. “And (we) are going to make sure that happens.
“Mike is obviously coming off of a tough year. Chris Iannetta is going to be the catcher if all is right, and he’s healthy. Mike comes in and we’re not holding him back from whatever he’s going to accomplish.”
The same day, assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, one of the few holdovers from the Z era, said the club “failed as an organization” to provide consistent communication to players about hitting.
That’s is why Zunino’s season is so intriguing. If Dipoto and McKay can finally get all the voices in the kid’s head to stop whispering, yelling and growling, salvaging him from the Ackley/Mendoza Pit of Mariners Despair, then prepare to dust off your best hosanna, for joy and triumph shall be about in the land.