Mike Zunino in Seattle: It’s Fine!

The Mariners called up top catching prospect Mike Zunino today, just over a year after he was drafted third overall out of the University of Florida.  Known for his leadership, defense and power, Zunino hit like Babe Ruth when he started his professional career in Low-A Everett last summer.  That earned him a late season promotion to Double-A, where he took a step down to Lou Gehrig production levels.  Already high expectations elevated to the point that fans were wondering if he would make the Mariners out of spring training.

That didn’t happen, and no one really expected it would, but his first weeks in Triple-A made it look like his Seattle absence would be short.  By the end of April, he started coming back to earth, dragged low by breaking balls.  At time of call up, he’s batting .238/.303/.503.  He’s not in the line up tonight as he had to fly from Las Vegas today, but I would expect to see him tomorrow.

Generally, when a prospect of Zunino’s caliber is called up, especially to a team as bad as the Mariners, fans react with excitement.  Not so, in this case.  The move is generating reactions ranging from, “He’s not ready,” to “This will ruin his development,” to “This is Zduriencik and Wedge desperately trying to keep their jobs.”  To be fair, any of those could be true.  I would say he’s not nearly as ready as everyone would like.  Ideally, he would cut down on his strikeouts and improve his plate discipline before getting the call.

Would I have made this move?  If possible, no.  Doing exactly what is ideal is not always possible, though.  I’m okay with this.  Reasons why:

  • Baseball is weird. For example, that low batting average above?  It’s almost all because of Tacoma.  Zunino is hitting .333/.389/.750 on the road this season.  Yeah, that works fine.  He has been horrible at home.  Maybe there’s a reason for it, and maybe not.  Maybe he can’t see well at Cheney Stadium, or maybe being recently married is getting the better of him at home.  Maybe there’s an excellent burrito place near his apartment and he eats two a day and isn’t feeling so good by the time he gets to the park.  Weird things happen in baseball.  If Zunino has that crazy of a difference in production now, who’s to say that something less strange can’t happen, like Zunino tearing up the big leagues like he does every other non-Tacoma stadium?  It probably won’t happen, but we never know.  Making the most logical move at the time is a good way to go, but it doesn’t ensure success.  The flip side is also true.  This seems like the wrong move for Zunino, but that doesn’t guarantee he won’t do anything in Seattle.
  • This isn’t likely to last long.  People are worried Zunino is going to struggle in Seattle for a couple of months and it’s going to have a lasting negative effect on his development.  Whether it would even have a negative effect is a different debate, and one that is possible to answer.  Personally, I don’t think it ever gets that far.  I see this going one of two ways.  There’s a chance, say 30%, that Zunino takes control of the job and never goes back. It’s not likely, but it could happen and would be great.  More likely would be Zunino struggling or being mediocre, and he goes back to Tacoma when or soon after Jesus Sucre comes off the DL.  I doubt they’ll keep him in Seattle for long if he’s struggling.  Some might disagree, but I see little harm in giving Zunino a taste of the majors, even if he struggles.  It could even be good for him.
  •  This is the best move for the Mariners.  A quick review of 2013 Mariner catching: they started the year with Jesus Montero starting and Kelly Shoppach in relief.  Montero couldn’t hit or catch, and Shoppach overcame a hot start to become himself again. Eventually, they sent Montero to Tacoma to become a first baseman and called up light-hitting but defensively solid Sucre.  Sucre soon got hit on the hand and had to sit a few days. Brandon Bantz, a journeyman minor league back up, was called up to fill in for emergencies. Sucre’s injury is worse than expected and put him on the DL a couple of days ago, which led to Zunino getting the call.  Through a combination of poor choices, bad luck and circumstances, the position has been horrible. The team’s preference was clearly to keep Zunino in Tacoma or they would have called him up in Bantz’s place originally.  Evidently, they decided Bantz is not a viable option for actual playing time, and Shoppach can’t play every day, so Zunino it is.

That last point touches on a couple of implicit issues.  The first is whether or when it’s time to give up on a season, whether it be this one or any other.  It’s easy for fans to see the team sitting well below .500 and decide there’s no reason to keep trying to win. Zduriencik and Wedge can’t do that.  Part of that is keeping their job, but it would also be incredibly irresponsible of them.  If they give up, so do the players, and that’s a tremendously worse thing than calling up a catcher a bit too early.  I don’t think the Mariners can get into the race, but they can’t give up in June.  They have to make responsible choices, but in my opinion, this move falls safely in that category.

Another issue that gets talked about less is fan’s overvaluing of prospects.  This is usually seen in trade discussions, or forecasts for the next year, but it also comes up in the treatment of the team’s minor leaguers.  In a rebuild as focused on youth as this one, every fan becomes a player development expert.  With nothing to watch at the big league level, the focus goes to the kids, to the point that I think sometimes we forget it’s the big league team that ultimately matters, not each individual player.

Current popular wisdom around the blogosphere is it’s best to leave a player in the minors until he’s clearly ready, and when he’s called up, give him a long opportunity to take the job and only send him back down as a last resort.  In general, this is probably a good approach, but it’s not always possible.  It’s not even clear that it’s the most effective way to go, as Ackley and Montero have demonstrated.  It might be better for some players to see the majors, learn what they need to work on, and then go back down to work on it in the minors.  In almost all cases, I don’t think it hurts a player to bounce between the majors and minors a bit.

More importantly, if it’s the best thing for the team, that’s what needs to be done.  The best option the Mariners have might not always be ready for the majors, like Zunino, but sometimes they just need to deal with it and do the best they can.  At the risk of falling into coach-speak, you do what’s best for the team!  Usually it’s best for the team to make sure each player develops as much as possible before they’re given too much responsibility, but that’s not always possible.  In Zunino’s case, we’ll hope for the best, both for this season and the future.

-Matthew

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