A.J. Zapp: Seattle's First Baseman of the Future?

Many Mariners fans across the country have written in and asked who the team's replacement for John Olerud might be for 2005. The best answer to that question in Seattle's farm system is Tacoma's A.J. Zapp, a former first-round draft choice of Atlanta in 1996. To learn more about Zapp and his rollercoaster ride to success, check out this InsidethePark exclusive.

When A.J. Zapp packed his suitcases last February and headed west for Arizona, it didn't just mean he was venturing to a part of the country he'd never been to before. It meant he was starting over, leaving the past behind while maintaining dreams of big league stardom.

A first-round draft choice by Atlanta in 1996, the honeymoon had been over for quite some time with Zapp and the Braves organization. The first baseman's breakout 1997 season at Single-A Danville was five years behind him, and injuries had plagued him in the years that followed.

First it was a broken finger in 1998, which limited him to 20 games and 73 at bats on the season. And after bouncing back for two decent seasons at Macon and Myrtle Beach in 1999 and 2000, it was fracture in his lower back in 2001 that limited the Indiana native to 75 games. By the time he reached Triple-A Richmond in 2002, Zapp knew the marriage was coming to an end.

"It was tough," said Zapp, now 26-years-old. "Both them and me knew that I wasn't going to get to the big leagues with the Braves. They didn't have confidence in me and it was tough for me to have confidence in myself."

It showed on the field, where Zapp's offensive numbers looked anything like those that would come from a guy drafted No. 27 overall in the June draft. He batted just .185 in 92 at bats for Richmond.

Following that 2002 season, it was time to move on for the then 24-year-old. A free agent who could sign with any club after seven years in the Atlanta farm system, Zapp's first call came from the Mariners. After getting off the phone, he realized Seattle was the right fit.

"They put together a package of everything I wanted," said Zapp. "A big league invite, the money was there, and a Double-A/Triple-A contract, which I was looking for at the time.

"I hadn't had a good year since 1997. After that I had injuries here and there and really hadn't had an awesome offensive year. (Seattle) still thought I was a prospect and they had confidence in me, which was a change from the Braves."

Getting a new start with the Mariners organization was just what the doctor ordered for Zapp. Following spring training in Peoria, Ariz., he was sent to Double-A San Antonio, a place where both he and the Mariners felt he could get his career back on track. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound first baseman didn't disappoint, proving his worth as one of the biggest bats on the Missions' team that made its way to its second-straight Texas League championship.

The slick-fielding Zapp provided the thunder offensively, batting .278 while powering out 26 home runs and 92 RBI for the Missions. And despite his high strikeout total of 178 in 528 at bats, the skip was back in his step. He had proven himself and regained the enthusiasm for the game that started to abandon him in Atlanta's organization.

"I started clean with the Mariners and last year I had the best year of my career," said Zapp, a quiet guy who comes in the John Olerud mold, leading by example.

The first baseman followed up his career-year in San Antonio with a promotion to Triple-A this season, a level he had only reached briefly while struggling at Richmond in 2002.

Starring as the everyday first baseman with the Rainiers, the second go-around at Triple-A has gone far better than the first for Zapp. Heading into June, he's batting .286 with nine homers and 34 RBI.

"It was a bad time when I was in Richmond because the team was down a little bit, we were out of it, and I only played about every other day," recalled Zapp. "So that was a little bit of a downer. But getting to play every day here the last two years has been good for me."

Like a little carrot hanging in front of a rabbit, the possibility of a promotion to the big leagues is closer than ever for Zapp. With the well-documented struggles of John Olerud at first base and the continual losing streaks of the Mariners themselves this season, the push is being made across the local baseball community for an influx of youth to the big league roster. Zapp knows it, he hears what the rest of the public does, and while he admits it's exciting he says his focus has to stay on where he's at.

"I've got a legitimate shot and I just have to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "You've got to be ready but you can only control what you can control. For me that's going out there and being focused every pitch. That's what I've got to worry about."

Joe Kaiser is the publisher of InsidethePark.com. He welcomes your feedback on this or any other article at JoeKaiser@InsidethePark.com.

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