PEORIA, Ariz. — Let’s review the quiet, understated season Mike Zunino glided through in 2012 — the one that began with his first game for the University of Florida on Feb. 17 and ended with the final game of the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League on Nov. 15.
In the nine months in between, Zunino:
Was selected No. 3 overall by the Mariners in the June draft, and a few weeks later signed for a reported $4 million bonus.
Flew around the country to accept the two biggest honors in college baseball, the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy, as well as the Johnny Bench Award given to the top collegiate catcher. He also squeezed in a trip to Kansas City to be honored during the All-Star Game.
Hit a scorching .373 in 29 games with Everett in the rookie Northwest League, then was promoted to Class AA and hit .333 in 15 games for Jackson. Not counting the eight playoff games for the Generals in which he hit .379 with three homers, and won over his new teammates.
“Unreal,” said pitcher Brandon Maurer, a member of the Jackson staff. “I think we all went, ‘OK, this kid’s the real deal. Great pick by Mariners.’”
Took his game to the Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .288 in 19 games and played in the AFL Rising Stars Game — but not before squeezing in a wedding to high-school sweetheart Alyssa Barry on Oct. 6 “between the end of the season and when I reported for the Fall League.”
Found his name listed near the top of every Mariners prospects list, in the upper echelons of overall MLB rankings, and firmly entrenched as the Mariners’ Next Big Thing.
It’s no wonder Zunino spent the month of December mostly chilling out, decompressing while clearing his head and resting his body. But if you think that whirlwind spin through 2012 was anything but the most exhilarating experience of his life, well, you need to get to know Zunino a little better.
“It was crazy. A lot of travel, a lot of stuff going on,” Zunino said Monday. “But it was a great year. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. It was fun — I got to play pro ball, I got to play college ball, I got to get married, I got drafted. I really enjoyed it. It was one of the best years of my life, by far. I mean, so much happened in one year.”
And now, the plotline changes. Oh, Zunino is going through another heady experience as we speak — his first big-league camp, trying hard not to be star-struck by the chance to catch real, live big-leaguers, to have manager Eric Wedge give him personal instruction about the proper way to handle a bunt play, to soak up the wisdom offered by veterans like Kelly Shoppach.
But then, barring an unforeseen scenario, it’s back to the grind of the minor leagues. The ultimate whirlwind finale would be for Zunino to make the team out of spring training, but the Mariners seem far more inclined to do the more prudent thing: take it slow. Let him learn the nuances of the job in relative anonymity rather than assume the burden of Franchise Savior prematurely. That will come soon enough — perhaps at some point this year, if Zunino’s progress continues apace.
Zunino, 21, has the innate ability to say the right thing, which includes staying away from anything in the neighborhood of inflammatory or self-promoting. So he’s quick to say that he has no timetable to get to the majors.
“I’m going to do the best I can, put my work in every day, and try to be the best player I can be, and the best teammate I can be,” he said. “Eventually, wherever the chips may fall, that’s when I’ll make that next jump.”
In the meantime, Zunino is already doing what he should be doing this camp to win over Wedge and the rest of the staff.
“He’s a complete player, very comfortable in his own skin for a young man,” Wedge said. “Sometimes it takes men a long time to get there. Sometimes men never get there.
“He carries himself with confidence but not with any complacency. You can tell already he has a great respect for the game. You can tell already he’s a student of the game. I’m very impressed with the way he handles himself catching bullpens, just handling a pitching staff early on. Fundamentally, he’s been very impressive both from the offensive and defensive side.”
Inspiring such testimonials wherever he goes — that’s an impressive eight-month legacy for Zunino since the draft.
But it is not the breakneck pace of his past year that most excites the Mariners. It’s the tantalizing prospect of all Zunino’s years to come.