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Mariners’ Zunino excited to start pro career

Former Florida Gators catcher Mike Zunino batted .322 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs as a junior this past college baseball season. (Associated Press)
Former Florida Gators catcher Mike Zunino batted .322 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs as a junior this past college baseball season. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – At this point, Mike Zunino just wants to get through the whirlwind of being honored for his college career so his pro career can begin.

It’s coming very soon for the Seattle Mariners’ latest top prospect.

“It’s very surreal,” Zunino said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid and I’m just extremely thrilled to have this opportunity. … I’m just looking forward to playing and making an impact.”

The Mariners introduced Zunino on Tuesday, a day after the No. 3 overall pick in June’s amateur draft signed his contract with Seattle. Within the next two weeks, Zunino, a catcher, is likely to be making his pro debut playing for short-season Class A Everett in the Northwest League.

That’s a significant change from previous years when it was rare for top prospects to sign in enough time to get shipped off for some schooling in the minors before the end of the season. Changes in the collective bargaining agreement moved up the signing deadline and made locking up draft picks simpler for clubs. The result for Seattle is that Zunino could get about six weeks of minor league experience that will only help in the process of trying to get him one step closer to the majors.

“You look at the amount of guys we’ve already signed, the number we had signed in the first week, I do think the new CBA had an awful lot to do with that,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “In terms of this particular player, Mike he wanted to get out and play. He was like, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go. You took me (No.) 3 in the country, I’m ready to start my career.’ ”

Zunino’s trip to Seattle this time was brief and included taking in a couple of games at what he hopes is his home park someday and signing his contract.

He’ll be off this weekend to the Golden Spikes Award ceremonies, where Zunino is a finalist for the award given to the top college player.

After that comes a trip to the All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo.

And that travel is after Zunino has already made a pair of trips to the Midwest to accept the Dick Howser Trophy and Johnny Bench Award for his stellar college career at Florida.

Zunino hasn’t played since June 18 when the Gators were eliminated from the College World Series and the break – despite all the travel – has been welcome. Zunino played 66 games his junior season for the Gators and hit .322 with 19 homers and 67 RBIs. The homers and RBIs are equal to his sophomore season when Zunino was the Southeastern Conference player of the year.

It’ll be about a month between his final game with the Gators and his likely debut in the Mariners farm system.

“It’s exciting to know there is room for advancement, but that is up to these guys here and to myself. I need to go out and play well and prove to them that I’m capable of playing at the highest level,” Zunino said.

Zduriencik is not putting a timeline on how quickly Zunino will be moved through the Mariners farm system.

Seattle has a history of struggling to find catchers in the draft, either giving up on them too soon (Jason Varitek) or having them bust (former first-round pick Jeff Clement).

Zunino was just the third catcher taken in the first round by the Mariners.

“That is the most challenging position on the field. … The thing we really liked about this particular player is he has all those other types of skills it takes,” Zduriencik said. “He’s a good receiver, he’s smart, he’s intelligent, he called his own game in college. His college coaches had great confidence in him so from our standpoint we think he’s going to be a little more advanced.”