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Larry Stone: Mariners in for a treat if Mike Zunino delivers on tremendous potential

UPDATED: Fri., March 9, 2018, 4:40 p.m.

Seattle’s Jean Segura, left, celebrates with Mike Zunino  after scoring during  a spring training  game against the San Diego Padres on  Feb. 23, in Peoria, Arizona. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
Seattle’s Jean Segura, left, celebrates with Mike Zunino after scoring during a spring training game against the San Diego Padres on Feb. 23, in Peoria, Arizona. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – Last May, the Mariners sent Mike Zunino to the minor leagues in the latest attempt to smooth out a swing that clearly wasn’t working.

It had reached the point, in fact, that some were wondering if Zunino were the latest in a line of Mariners draft busts. The catcher, picked third overall in the 2012 draft, was mired at .167 with an alarming number of strikeouts. He had been sent to Tacoma before for remedial tutelage, but in Zunino’s words, “It was almost like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound, in the sense of just trying to fix it and make do.”

This time, he turned himself over to Mike Micucci, the Mariners’ coordinator of organization instruction, for a complete overhaul.

“We sort of stripped the thing down to the bearings and said, ‘OK, here we go. We’ve got to build this from the ground up,’ ” Zunino said.

This time, it clicked to an extent he had never felt before. Zunino returned to Seattle three weeks later with a new leg kick, refined mechanics, renewed confidence – and promptly went 1 for 17 “with like 10 punchouts.”

But Mariners manager Scott Servais told him to stick with it, regardless. He was going to keep writing Zunino’s name in the lineup.

Finally, the Mariners and the baseball world saw the Zunino that all had been waiting for since he emerged from the University of Florida dubbed a can’t-miss catching prospect. From May 23 through the end of the season – 95 games’ worth – Zunino hit .281 with a .950 on-base-plus-slugging, 24 homers and 61 RBIs.

That’s All-Star caliber production if sustained over a full year, which the Mariners finally feel confident Zunino can accomplish. Servais cautions that Zunino, who struck out 160 times last year, will still be a streaky player, now and probably always. But when the slumps come, Servais said, the hope is “it’s more like waves instead of typhoons.”

The first time Zunino realized he was truly onto something was June 3, when he erupted for seven RBIs in a win at Tampa Bay, including a decisive grand slam. But it wasn’t the salami that convinced him. It was Zunino’s first at-bat of the night, a double to the opposite field.

“I took a sinker that was sort of coming in on me and drove it to right-center,” he said. “I knew that was what I wanted. It’s funny, we were playing Tampa that same series, and they shifted the second baseman on the other side of shortstop. It was actually against Erasmo (Ramirez, now a teammate), and I was able to hit a ground ball over to that side for an RBI. There’s a bunch of stuff that sticks out to me, at-bats, and it’s not really the ones that are far home runs, but when I can use the whole field and drive balls that really reassure what I’m doing.”

If Zunino’s refinements prove to be permanent, it will be a huge boost to the Mariners’ lineup. In numerous offseason surveys, Zunino was listed as a top-10 MLB catcher. The only catchers to surpass his 25 homers for the season were Gary Sanchez of the Yankees (33) and Salvador Perez of the Royals (27). The only players at any position to hit over .280 with 24 or more homers and at least a .580 slugging percentage after May 29, as Zunino did in his post-Tacoma surge, were Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto – all considered elite.

The Mariners have hoped before that Zunino has turned the corner – such as when he started the 2016 season in Tacoma to rework his swing – only to have him regress. All involved believe this time is different, that at age 26 (he turns 27 on March 25), with parts of five major-league seasons under him, Zunino is at last hitting the sweet spot of his career.

“It’s far from perfect and where I want it, but it’s something where now I can go in every day and have something I can fight my own battles with,” Zunino said of his swing.

The biggest thing, Zunino said, is that he came to camp with the basics of his swing intact. The Cactus League has been about smoothing things out, not desperately trying to find a stroke that suited him.

“I can really focus on timing and that stuff,” he said. “I’m not going in any day trying to redo anything.”

If that’s the case, and Zunino has survived the long, arduous road to offensive consistency, the rewards could extend beyond the batter’s box.

The Mariners believe there is considerable untapped leadership potential they hope to draw out of Zunino, particularly in his stewardship of their pitching staff.

“He’s a better player because he’s more confident, and that confidence comes from what he’s done at the plate,” Servais said.

“I don’t know what else you can say. It’s carried over into how he’s carrying himself and how he’s handling our pitching staff and within our clubhouse. He’s a key part of what we want to do.”

Zunino is ready to embrace that burden as the Mariners continue their quest to end a 16-year playoff drought.

“Especially with the pitching staff, we don’t want to wait any longer than what’s needed to really take the next step as a club,” he said. “The weight of the pitching staff and how to manage those guys, a lot of that falls on my shoulders, and it’s exciting to be able to do that and not have to stress about other parts of your game.”

If the stress is really over for Zunino, and for those who have struggled while watching him struggle, it bodes well for the Mariners’ season.

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