Sep 6, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) and Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Danny Farquhar (40) celebrate after defeating Tampa Bay at the end of the 9th inning at Safeco Field. Seattle defeated Tampa Bay 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zunino is Getting Better

Mar 3, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) rounds second base after hitting an RBI double in the fifth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Even though he is one of the most integral parts of future Seattle Mariner success, talk about catcher Mike Zunino has been like the doldrums this spring. Quiet, uneventful, something in the background of the Spring Training production.

The focus has been on the rotation, position battles in the outfield, the Nick Franklin/Brad Miller debate, the potential reemergence of Dustin Ackley/Justin Smoak, the show that is Robinson Cano.

But this youngster Mike Zunino might be more important than all the rest. He will be the battery mate for King Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma (when he gets healthy), and everyone else who may pitch for the M’s this season.

He had less than 100 minor league games under his belt when he was called up to the Bigs midway through last season. Behind the plate he did a great job: framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt, keeping guys honest when they thought about stealing. He focused on getting to know his pitching staff, and his offense was not quite Major League ready.

This offseason has given him an opportunity to work on both, equally. Now that he knows what being a Major League catcher feels like, he can work on his game next to the dish and not exclusively behind it.

In 52 games at the Major League level last season he hit .214/.290/.329 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI. What’s worse, he struck out 49 times in 173 at-bats, a 28% K-rate which is simply too high.

Nobody had offensive expectations for him in 2013, though. However this season, if he can improve even a bit, he will be a huge asset as a right-handed hitter in the lineup.

So far this spring Zunino is batting .278/.333/.500 with 4 doubles and 2 RBI in 18 at-bats. Unfortunately he has struck out 5 times in those 18 at-bats, and only walked once.

Zunino is still so young, he is still raw offensively but he has serious potential for this team. His improvement ought to be watched carefully by Mariners fans this season.

He could really prove to be the difference-maker as the season rolls on. Framing pitches and really running the game from behind the plate.

But even if he can hit .240/.345/.450, he would be doing some seriously good things for this team, and those numbers aren’t even remarkable, far from it.

Sep 20, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun (56) scores in the seventh inning as Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) watches at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zunino is getting better. His game still has room for improvement, and he is perpetually motivated to get there. Fortunately, in 2014, he won’t be expected to hit higher than seventh in the lineup. Fortunately, he has a whole spring to get to know his pitching staff, a whole spring knowing that he is the guy for 2014 and beyond.

He will always be an above-average defensive catcher and game manager. The question is whether or not his offensive game will catch up.

But he is getting better, he is getting smarter, and he knows how to– and wants to– win.

If he makes even a small step forward this season, he could be one of the biggest reasons the Mariners have a pleasantly successful season.

Though nobody seems to be talking about him, Zunino is listening. And he is getting better, too.

 

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