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40 in 40: Mike Zunino

See Mike swing. See Mike hit. See Mike turn into a solid MLB starting catcher?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at the image below. What do you see?

Corey Seager and Michael Wacha certainly jump out as outstanding picks at the #17/#18 mark. Lucas Giolito just a few picks ahead isn’t bad either.

But see that, right at the very top? The Astros were expected to take Mark Appel, a college righty out of Stanford. This is true in quite a bunch of mock drafts that I found.

Instead, the Astros surprised everybody by taking high school shortstop Carlos Correa, who is basically as close to the Hall of Fame as a 22-year-old can be. Nobody had Correa going in the top two, and some even had him being taken by the Mariners at #3.

Following Correa was Byron Buxton, a five-tool centerfielder from Georgia who put up nearly two wins in only 92 games last season as a 22-year-old. Buxton struggled a bit at the plate, but he seems well on his way to being a solid starter at the very least, and perhaps even a superstar someday.

And, at #3, the Mariners selected Mike Zunino.

By MLB standards, Mike Zunino has been a successful first-round pick, and arguably even a successful top-10 pick. The MLB Draft is known for being especially volatile, and though some drafts have oodles of talent at the top (six of the first 11 picks in 2005 have at least 25 WAR in their careers), others end up falling flat (six of the first 11 picks in 2007 have less than 1 WAR in their careers). So finding a player who can start at catcher sure doesn’t seem bad!

Yet 2017 represents a milestone in Zunino’s career, one that figures to make or break his future in Seattle. Entering 2015, the University of Florida product was firmly entrenched as the starting catcher of the future; sure, he didn’t hit very well in 2014 (.199/.254/.404), but he was an elite receiver and contributor on the defensive end, and the bat would surely come around.

Fast forward to 2016. Zunino absolutely cratered in the ‘15 campaign, striking out 34.2% of the time and slashing .174/.230/.300 before being demoted to Tacoma in August on the same day that general manager Jack Zduriencik was fired. He was a major contributor to the Mariners posting the worst wRC+ at catcher of any team since the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas.

(Bonus fact: what is a Superba, you ask? Great question! Apparently it was the title of an 1890s entertainment spectacle put on by someone with the same last name as the manager of the 1899 Brooklyn team, and thus they called that team “Hanlon’s Superbas.” The name stuck. What a world, the 19th century.)

But Zunino excelled in limited time in the bigs in 2016, doubling his walk rate from the previous year (10.9%!!!) and finding a power surge. He was worth 1.2 fWAR in just 55 games all season.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Look to the stars, Mike. And please try not to swing at them too.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

His volatility raises the obvious question, what to expect in 2017?

What I didn’t tell you in the paragraph about 2016 was how he ended the season. In September/October, Zunino regressed severely, striking out 40.3% of the time and hitting just .188. That can’t happen if he wants to remain an MLB mainstay. His walk rate will need to hover around 10 percent, and his strikeout rate can’t really afford to balloon past its already-inflated 32.4% career mark.

This is a make-or-break season for the Z-Man. He needs to build on his 2016 season and keep his swing adjustments (which you can read more about here from our former Head Honcho). He needs to hit dingers, but more importantly, just hit the ball a bit more. He needs to show he can handle being the major league catcher for an entire season, and that he can make tweaks throughout the year as pitchers alter their approaches.

Can he do it? It’s entirely possible. It’s also possible he’ll flame out like the other catcher the M’s took #3 overall - Jeff Clement, the prodigious slugger out of USC who mashed in AAA and could never quite make enough contact to stick in the bigs.

Zunino is already more successful than Clement was. But if he doesn’t hit this year, the two will remain inextricably linked in Mariners lore. Let’s hope he avoids that fate.

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