When the Seattle Mariners decided against including top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker in a potential trade for David Price, it seemed like their candidacy in the Price sweepstakes would be bleak until the moment they changed their minds. Little did we know that the Mariners had a replacement in mind. According to Jon Heyman, the Mariners are replacing Walker in the talks with catcher MIke Zunino, the number three overall pick in the draft from just last year. Could a package built around Zunino make the Mariners the frontrunners for Price once again?
Zunino, 22, made his major league debut in 2013 and it did not quite go as expected. Zunino hit to just a .214/.290/.329 line (78 OPS+) in 193 plate appearances, most notably striking out 49 times against 16 walks and failing to hit the ball with much authority. Defensively, Zunino looked better, but did throw out just 18% of attempted basestealers. Zunino is certainly talented enough to warrant many more chances, but after how poorly he performed, he will receive his share of criticism. One thing the Rays will notice, however, is how he was rushed to the major leagues by the Mariners out of necessity.
After Jesus Montero failed to meet expectations, the Mariners were left without a starting option at catcher. It is scary but true that former Ray Kelly Shoppach was likely their best option. Or at least that was the case unless the Mariners called up the highly-touted Zunino. The issue, however, was that Zunino clearly was not ready. He did have a .775 OPS at the time, but that number belied just a .227 batting average and a .297 on-base percentage. Zunino was hitting for power, but he struck out 66 times against 17 walks and his approach at the plate clearly was not big league ready. Zunino still had plenty of work to do as he learned to hit breaking pitches. Behind the plate, meanwhile, he had also thrown out just 26% of attempted basestealers, far below what we would expect from a receiver of his caliber. The Mariners hoped he would adjust, but the realistic best-case scenario was Zunino barely holding his own. You can’t blame the Mariners for bringing up Zunino because they simply had nowhere else to go, but it is hard to say that Zunino was not set up to fail.
When we bring up Zunino as a possible trade target for Rays, the first question that comes to mind has to be “where would Zunino fit in with all the other catchers the Rays have?” That question is not as big of a concern for the Rays as it would seem to be because they would likely start Zunino back at Triple-A and wait to bring him up until he is fully ready both at the plate and behind it. Unless the last year has drastically changed baseball’s perception of him, Zunino is a prospect and a very talented one at that. He may not be as promising as Walker, but he has plenty of potential and could be exactly the type of player the Rays are looking for in return for Price. The Mariners will have to construct a package around him, but if they are willing to part with Zunino, it may not be long before their talks for Price begin heating up.