Hickey: New rule has Mariners pick closer to bigs

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on September 11, 2012 at 8:30 AM

If Mike Zunino comes to the Mariners spring training came in 2013 with a chance to make the big league roster, will you be surprised?

You shouldn’t be. Not after Zunino, the third overall pick in the June draft out of the University of Florida, hit .373 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 29 games playing rookie league ball with Everett, then went to Double-A Jackson and hit .333 in 15 games with  three homers and eight RBIs.

Certainly not after the past weekend, when the 21-year-old catcher hit a pair of home runs Friday in the Southern League playoffs against Chattanooga then came back Sunday with a single and a homer. Jackson beat regular-season champion Chattanooga in four games to advance to the finals this week. Zunino, who had seven RBIs in the four games, served as Jackson’s prime power source.

Here's the new wrinkle that paved the way for his potential early arrival:

Zunino and the Mariners benefited by a little-noticed rule change  for players selected in this year’s draft. Years ago, draftees had until the day before the draft the following season to sign. A few years ago that was chopped down to mid-August. This year, for the first time, it was mid-July.

That meant players who sign contracts by mid-July no longer miss a half-season of work. They have five weeks or so after the draft to sign. If they sign, six or seven weeks of baseball remain, more with playoffs.

What the July 15 deadline meant this year for Zunino is that he not only had time to play a month with Everett, but when he proved to be much better than the Northwest League competition, he was quickly advanced to Double-A. When he proved a middle-of-the-lineup fit with the Generals – he’s batting cleanup in the playoffs – the Mariners can think of him as a player who should come to spring training with a chance to win a job.

Compare that to Josh Fields, the University of Georgia closer the Mariners took with their first round pick in 2008 (20th overall) after a monster year with the Bulldogs. The Mariners were desperate for bullpen help at the big league level that season. Speculation was that he would sign, go to Double-A for awhile and get a September promotion to the big leagues.

Instead, he signed late and didn’t pitch his first minor league game until 2009. His talent was such that he started at Double-A, but he foundered there, and is now property of the Boston Red Sox. He has yet to be tried above Triple-A. If and when he does make the big leagues, Fields, 26, is not going to be the prospect he was. More than that, he’s missed out bigger paychecks for not having at least worn a big league uniform for a while.

His career – not to mention the Mariners’ bullpen – might have been much different if he signed right away and found himself fast-tracked to the big leagues. He held out for extra money up front, and, signing bonus aside, that seems to be one reason he’s never gotten an actual big league salary.

Take the case of lefty starter James Paxton, who waited nine months to sign. He’s still a serious prospect, but the lost half-season may have delayed his big league entry by perhaps a couple of years.

It’s certain that two starting pitchers drafted after him, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, are now ahead of him in the organization ranks, thanks in part to the time lost. It’s not going overboard to suggest if Paxton had come aboard when drafted rather than holding out, he would have been in position to take the roster spot in March that went to 21-year-old Erasmo Ramirez.

The impact of the July signing rule is not just a Seattle phenomenon. The Oakland A’s, weekend guests of the Mariners at Safeco, have a similar story. They used their first pick (11th overall) this year on a high school shortstop, Addison Russell, out of Miami. Signing early has given him time to go from the Arizona rookie league to Class A Vermont to Class A Burlington.

He’s just 18, and he’s already halfway through the Oakland system. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if he was at Double A sometime next year and maybe in the big leagues by the time he’s 20.

Let’s call it the Griffey Rule. Not Griffey Junior, but Senior. When Ken Griffey Jr. was the Mariners’ first-round pick in 1987, there was talk about him holding out rather than signing quickly. Senior, still playing in the big leagues, advised hard against it. He essentially said that even if it’s about money, the place where you make the real bucks is in the big leagues. Holding out for a little extra is short-term thinking.

So Junior signed quickly, played two months for rookie-league Bellingham as a 17-year-old and was in the big leagues in 1989 at 19. He should be the poster child for all can’t-miss draftees who think about holding out.

There are times it makes sense to hold out for the last dollar. If a player thinks his career might be a short one for whatever reason, getting the biggest bonus makes sense.

If not, the best way to get to the big leagues is to play. Can’t do that until signing.

Zunino did, and it would be a shock if he didn’t get more than a casual look in spring training. If Miguel Olivo, 34,whose contract is up at the end of the season, isn’t back, Seattle is going to need another catcher. John Jaso, who doubled as a pinch-hitter Sunday, is on a one-year contract and is likely to be back. Rookie Jesus Montero, who has 15 homers in his first full season, will return, but neither is a full-time catcher. Zunino could be part of another three-man catching corps in 2013.

Zunino did. It would be a shock if he didn’t get more than a casual look in spring training. If Miguel Olivo, whose contract is up at the end of the season, isn’t back, Seattle is going to need another catcher.

And by not holding out, Zunino has put himself in position to be that guy.

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