Thiel: Mariners eager for happy end with Zunino

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on July 4, 2012 at 5:30 PM

Gather 'round, kiddies, and let us go back to the year two-ought-ought-five for a tale of the Mariners and catching.

They had seven of 'em: Dan Wilson, Pat Borders, Miguel Olivo, Yorvit Torrealba, Rene Rivera, Wiki Gonzalez and Miguel Ojeda. All fizzled, more or less.

But the crafty Mariners knew they were in trouble because Wilson had been a major league catcher for 14 years and was 36, which is, in catcher-years, older than the sun. So in June of ought-five they used their No. 1 draft choice, the third pick overall, on Jeff Clement, a can't-miss catcher from the University of Southern California.

Clement played 75 major league games for the Mariners, hit .227, couldn't catch or throw much and ended up in Pittsburgh.

Nobody lived happily ever after.

The End.

Ah, but wait -- there's a sequel, of course; mandatory for all dubious Hollywood ideas.

In development is a similar plot, moved ahead seven years. Halfway through the season, the Mariners have the worst record in the American League, have used three catchers, none of whom look like a long-term answer at the position. So in June, they used their No. 1 pick, again third overall, on Mike Zunino, a can't-miss catcher from the University of Florida.

But since I don't want to be a spoiler, I won't tell you how the script turns out. Besides, it's hard to see if you keep rolling your eyes at the mention of the first story.

But Jack Zduriencik, the guy who approved the draft of Zunino, is willing to share with you a dream sequence. Before Tuesday's game against Baltimore featuring Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, the Mariners general manager, who helped introduce Zunino and his family to the local media, volunteered a reverie.

"Maybe in a short time, we ask (Zunino) to handle Felix, as well as other pitchers who have more experience than (Zunino) has," he said. "We think he has all the skills it takes."

Again, Z-GM volunteered that idea about Z-C. No one asked him how soon it would be, because everyone who's been around Zduriencik knows he doesn't deal in forecasts, projections or timetables.

Boy, does he want a happy ending.

The Mariners have been bad enough long enough that the annual high draft choices that are their "rewards" for pathos need to start paying off, in the fashion that Tampa Bay has become a quality team after years of failure. That's why there's a lot of pressure on second baseman Dustin Ackley, who went second in the 2009 draft behind pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who's an All-Star with the Washington Nationals, another woebegone outfit turned contender via the draft.

The Mariners spent their valuable 2012 choice on the hardest position to hit on in baseball.

"It's not the case with this guy, but I've said before that you always have to take a (good) catcher half a round sooner because there are so few good ones," he said. "If you think the catcher is worth a second round pick, you might take him late first."

The Mariners took Zunino, Baseball America's college player of the year, at the top of the first for three virtues repeated through the introductory press conference by multiple people: Toughness, smarts and leadership.

His athleticism also might make him top-tier. He started out in sports as a soccer player, which pleased his mother, Paola, a native of Italy who also happened to be a catcher on the national fast-pitch team. He started in baseball as a shortstop, but by his sophomore year in high school, Zunino moved behind the plate the urging of his father, Gene, a pro baseball scout who had a career in the minor leagues.

Mike became a fixture through his junior year this spring at the University of Florida, where he won the team's triple crown: Batting average (.322), RBI (67) and home runs (19). He helped lead Florida to its third consecutive trip to the College World Series with a 47-20 record.

After receiving a couple of more awards for his college career, Zunino, who received a $4 million signing bonus, will join Class A Everett and get at least a six-week start on his pro career this summer.

Zunino has the pedigree, the resume and the athleticism. But he has come to the Bermuda Triangle of catching careers.

"Some teams draft catchers because of offense, some draft for defense," Zduriecik said. "You hope you get a little of both, and we hope that's what we have here with this kid.

"It’s a demanding position that wears and tears on clubs and individuals. Everyone throughout the industry is trying to find catchers. There doesn't seem to be as many."

Actually there are a lot of catchers, and many, if not most, have played for the Mariners recently. Instead of the hordes, the trick is finding that five-year guy who will last until he gets to free agency. If Zunino is as special as the Mariners believe, Zduriencik's dream of a Hernandez-Zunino battery will come true before you can say Yorvit Torrealba.

If he isn't, be prepared to say, "Yorvit Torrealba, welcome home."

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