BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 02/22/2016

Thiel: Dipoto’s real test is Mariners’ Zunino

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.

If Jerry Dipoto’s player development group can make a hitter out of Mike Zunino, everything else is gravy. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

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.

C Mike Zunino.

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.



  • notaboomer

    i’m gonna need some 2 for 1 beer nights to be motivated to watch a team with a .188 hitting catcher yo.

    • art thiel

      So you haven’t been to Safeco in 10 years?

      • notaboomer

        praise jesus i was there in 2012 when montero caught and hit 15 hr 62 rbi and had a split line of 260/298/685.

  • jafabian

    Zunino is an interesting project right now. I don’t think I’ve seen a player play full time for a couple seasons, have a horrendous offensive game and rebound from that. I completely agree that player development is the problem and not the scouting, especially when you see how many former M’s are in the majors as well as contributed to their clubs in the postseason last year. If the M’s staff can rehabilitate Z it will be an amazing accomplishment for the club. He was an outstanding player at the Univ. of Florida at the University of Florida where he won the Dick Howser Trophy, Golden Spikes Award, and Johnny Bench Award in his senior year. I’m hoping they can help him turn things around.

    I’m somewhat surprised, being a successful MLB scout who is the only non-GM to be awarded Executive of the Year because of that success that Jack Zduriencik called him up before he was ready. Shows how desperate he was to save his job. Or that he just didn’t understand player development.

    • art thiel

      The Mariners had a catching emergency. You have such things after years of blundering away prospects.

  • Sam Base

    If they can work a little magic with Mike Z and turn his career around it’ll be a great sign not only for the near future of the M’s, but the far future as well. But Mike has to do his part, he can be stubborn to change as Edgar Martinez has hinted at (very subtly, of course) in interviews. And it’s stubbornness that is apparently derailing D.J. Peterson’s development.

    • art thiel

      Kingston admitting to org failure is telling. Have you ever had five people telling you how to fix a problem five different ways? Were you pissed?

  • Paul Harmening

    Taking something from nothing and making it sound plausible. And your closing sentence… almost like Trump’s “Lets make America great again.” Good job Art. Ever consider writing fiction?

    • art thiel

      It’s their plan. It’s their spring training. And it’s my tongue in my cheek.

  • Long-Time Mariners Fan

    Art, a side question about Zunino: I’ve heard you on the radio pronounce his last name as if the second “n” were spelled with the Spanish “ñ” – as in “Zoo-NEEN-yo.” But I see it spelled in all the media without the tilde and it’s not on the back of his uniform like it is on other major leaguers. Do you know something we don’t? Just a wonderin’.

    • art thiel

      My bad on the radio. He doesn’t use the Spanish n.

  • Kirkland

    The Detroit Red Wings’ developmental philosophy is, when in doubt, let the prospects spend another full year in the minors. Hard to argue the results: no missed playoffs since 1990, six conference championships and four Stanley Cups. Different sport, but it’s a great example for the Mariners. Zunino’s a talented catcher; if the M”s can just get him to be middle-of-the-pack offensively for catchers, that would lengthen both his career and their lineup.

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    • art thiel

      The crisis-du-jour of Mariners baseball ops has ruined a number of prospects.

      • Alan Kelly


  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    I truly have a hard time buying into anything the M’s franchise says or does because of Howard Lincoln and his minions. They have flat run the team team into the ground year in and year out with their persistent meddling. I hope for the best but in reality until Lincoln is gone I’ll have to see it to believe it.