Remember, we were all excited that the Mariners got to pick third in the most recent draft. That's the silver lining to having a season as bad as the Mariners' 2011, or, truthfully, to having a half-season as bad as the Mariners' 2011 second half. But then this most recent draft wasn't thought to be real deep in impact talent. People with strong opinions were hoping that Byron Buxton would slip to the Mariners. After he went to the Twins, people with strong opinions were deflated, and the Mariners wound up with a collegiate catcher who didn't at all profile like Bryce Harper when he was a catcher. (Remember when Bryce Harper was a catcher?)
Mike Zunino won the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the country's best amateur player, but I don't think there was much question about Zunino's standing relative to the rest of the pool; it was more about the talent level of the pool. If you have at your disposal all numbers one through ten, then the greatest number is ten. If you have at your disposal all numbers one through 100, then the greatest number is 100. 100 is ten times greater than ten! This illustration didn't accomplish very much so here comes the next paragraph.
My impression is that people were by no means disappointed with Zunino, considering what was available. Zunino was a fine selection. People were more disappointed with what was available, and Zunino didn't get a lot of motors running. He was signed before long after the draft and assigned to short-season Everett, where he could resume playing baseball, as is his wont.
Zunino played 29 games with the AquaSox. He slugged ten dingers and posted a 1.210 OPS. The league-average OPS is .693. The Tri-City Dust Devils have hit a dozen dingers as a team. The next-highest player OPS by someone with at least 100 plate appearances is .905, by one of Zunino's teammates. Mike Zunino lit the Northwest League on fire, and while that's what he was supposed to do - Zunino was the Golden Spikes Award winner in low single-A - Zunino is a few months older than 21, and the league-average age is a few months older than 21. In terms of age, Zunino was not a man among boys. In terms of performance, he most certainly was.
So now, as has been FanShotted, Zunino is leaving Everett and going to double-A Jackson. He's skipping right over Clinton and High Desert, so this is aggressive, but the Mariners presumably want to figure out just how close Zunino really is. Jackson's regular season ends on September 10 so Zunino will only get something like a month, but that'll give the organization some idea. Remember that Danny Hultzen more or less began with double-A Jackson, and he had little difficulty. Remember that Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino have completely opposite jobs.
Now begins the era of taking Mike Zunino's statistics seriously. Numbers posted below double-A can be meaningful and you'd obviously rather a guy post good numbers than bad numbers, but double-A is where the competition really starts to get intense. You have guys facing a greater percentage of opponents who will go on to have Major League careers. Now is when we get to start finding out of how much Mike Zunino is offensively capable. I mean, the scouting hasn't changed, but now we'll have objectivity, too.
Not that success in double-A guarantees success in the Majors. Adam Moore owns an .880 OPS in double-A. Rob Johnson owns a ... turns out Rob Johnson never played in double-A. The test of whether Zunino can handle the Majors will come if and when Zunino's ever in the Majors. But the Mariners want to figure out if they can send him there soon.
When the Mariners first drafted Mike Zunino, a lot of people were wondering what that meant for the organization's future at the catching position, what with Zunino, Jesus Montero, John Jaso, and a handful of others. I felt like that was hasty; you don't make plans around low-level prospects. You accumulate as much talent as you can and you answer questions as they come up. Now, it's worth wondering about the organization's future at the catching position, because the Mariners are looking to push Zunino hard, and he could conceivably debut before long in 2013. Zunino is no longer the idea of an almost-ready catching prospect. Zunino is an almost-ready catching prospect, probably, meaning decisions could need to be made soon if they haven't been made already.
Yesterday was Jesus Montero's seventh start behind the plate since the All-Star break. The Mariners have played 29 games over the same span. John Jaso has started 11 games behind the plate since the break. I'm not declaring that there's meaning in there, but there might be, as Jaso's been catching more often and Montero's been DH'ing more often. It's an awkward rotation with Miguel Olivo still around, but you'd figure that if the Mariners were committed to Montero as a long-term catcher, they'd be giving him more in-game reps. Maybe they want to sort out his offense first. Maybe they're taking things slow. Maybe they've already determined that Montero's going to end up doing something else.
Mike Zunino has some ways to go before he's a Seattle Mariner. He has less to go than ever before. If Zunino has a rough month with Jackson, that's okay, because it's the end of the summer and he was pushed aggressively. If he has a good month with Jackson, it might be his only month with Jackson. We know that the Mariners love Mike Zunino, and we'll get to find out just how much.