The Florida Gators entered the season ranked No. 1, in large part thanks to returning the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and the core of a lineup that reached the College World Series championship series a year ago with a roster loaded with Major League Baseball prospects.
On Monday, the Seattle Mariners drafted Mike Zunino with the third overall pick in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft, making him just the second catcher in Florida baseball history to be taken in the first round and the highest-drafted Florida player ever.
Zunino also becomes coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s first player taken in the first round of an MLB draft in his five years coaching the Gators, one year after O’Sullivan sent a school-record 11 players to the big leagues.
The former SEC Player of the Year has anchored the Florida lineup for the past three years as a power hitter who can do a lot of damage in the middle of the order, and the Mariners were looking for a long-term answer at catcher.
They’ve likely found it in Zunino, who many say is the safest pick in the 2012 draft class.
Said MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo about the catchers available in this year’s draft: “There’s Mike Zunino, and then there’s everybody else.”
Zunino is one of the rare catcher prospects who can seemingly do it all. He’s an excellent hitter who hits well for both average and power, driving in RBI at an excellent rate.
He’s also an excellent defensive catcher, an aspect of his game sometimes overshadowed by his ability to come through with the clutch hit at the plate. He does a terrific job knocking down balls in the dirt and keeping them in front of him, and he has an excellent arm, helping him frequently gun down runners trying to steal second.
Moreover, he’s the type of leader who can singlehandedly take over games with either his defensive ability or knack for coming up with a timely hit. He can handle a pitching staff extremely well. In fact, Zunino often calls his own games, and coach Kevin O’Sullivan felt confident enough in his ability to do so that he let his junior catcher call the final three innings of sophomore Jonathon Crawford’s no-hitter in the opening game of the Gainesville Regional over the weekend.
Zunino’s ability to get extra-base hits makes him much more than just a power hitter, too. He can move runners around in a variety of ways with his ability to put the ball safely in play.
There just aren’t many areas to criticize Zunino, who is the son of Cincinnati Reds scout Greg Zunino. He’s as well-rounded a player as you’ll find in the draft and should make an excellent addition to the Mariners’ roster.
Career at Florida
Zunino came to Florida after being drafted in the 30th round of the 2009 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. As a freshman, he quickly began his climb up many of the school record books.
Fittingly, his first career hit was an RBI double, the first of dozens in his three-year career so far at Florida. He drove in 41 RBI on nine home runs and seven doubles in his first season, starting 51 games behind the plate for the Gators en route to being named to the Baseball America Freshman All-American team and the SEC’s All-Freshman team.
A year later, Zunino was named the SEC Player of the Year and picked up three first-team All-America honors after hitting .371 with 67 RBI, 19 homers and 23 doubles.
As a junior, he currently leads the SEC in slugging percentage (.667), home runs (18), doubles (27), total bases (154) and sac flies (9), while ranking in the Top 10 in the league in RBI (60) and runs scored (50).
Zunino is hitting .316 on the year for Florida.
Chances Zunino returns
When you’re the third overall pick in the MLB Draft as a junior, the odds you consider coming back for your senior season simply aren’t great. Barring something drastic happening, Zunino will almost certainly take whatever offer Seattle makes.
At this point, there’s little in Zunino’s game that can’t be refined or worked on in the big leagues or minor leagues. Though his production slipped somewhat at the plate from his sophomore to junior seasons, he’s still quite capable of moving quickly through a farm system and getting to the big leagues.
Coming back would only further open him up to scrutiny at the plate or potential injury. The slot money for the third overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft is $5.2 million.
Bottom line: Don’t expect to see Zunino donning the Orange and Blue again in 2013.