Zunino wraps up long year, excited for future

Peoria, Ariz., isn't an ideal honeymoon location for most couples. For former Florida catcher Mike Zunino and his wife Alyssa, there wasn't much of a choice. That was part of the whirlwind that transpired from the end of Zunino's college season until early December. There wasn't much time to breathe. Zunino started pro ball and went to the Arizona Fall League with multiple stops in between.

When the Gators were eliminated from the College World Series on June 18, Zunino flew back with the team to Gainesville. He and his roommate, Boston Red Sox left-hander and first-round pick Brian Johnson, spent the day cleaning out their house and reliving the memories of their three years in college before Zunino got on the road and drove back to his parents' house in Cape Coral.

The awards banquets started soon after that. He went on the road to banquets where he accepted the Golden Spikes Award, the Johnny Bench Award, and one appearance at the College Baseball Hall of Fame. From there, Zunino hopped on a plane and flew to Seattle where he would sign with the Mariners after they selected him with the third pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.

Zunino then flew back home to pack up and prepare to fly out to start his career in pro ball. He made one stop for an awards gathering at the MLB All-Star game in Kansas City before flying to Washington to play for the Everett Aquasox in short-season Single-A ball. After hitting .373 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles and 35 RBIs, the Mariners promoted Zunino to Double-A with the Jackson Generals, who were in the heat of a race for their championship.

Zunino put up big numbers in Everett

Zunino kept hitting. He hit .333 with three home runs, eight RBIs and four doubles in 15 games played, as the Generals lost in the championship. The championship ended in Mobile, and after the game was over, Zunino and his then-fiancé Alyssa drove through the night to Gainesville, where they stayed with Zunino's sister and brother-in-law.

They drove back to Cape Coral the next day and had a few days to relax before Zunino was back on a plane and flying to Arizona for a quick three-day instructional league.

The biggest day of the fall came on October 6, when Zunino and his longtime girlfriend were married. They spent one night at a hotel on the beach, but soon after, Zunino was back on a flight to Peoria to participate in the Arizona Fall League, a league with most of the top prospects in professional baseball. Zunino hit .288 with two home runs and 15 RBIs in 19 games played.

"I told (my wife) that next offseason that she deserves an extended honeymoon, so we'll have to do something," Mike Zunino said with a laugh.

When the Arizona Fall League came to a close after Zunino's team won the championship, he returned home in late November. It provided an opportunity for him to step away from baseball and recover his body, something he wasn't able to do since early January 2012, before the Gators started spring practice as Zunino went into his junior season.

"December and January have been the best because I've been able to relax and get my feet back under me," Zunino said. "It really was crazy."

He took two weeks off in early December to let his body recover before getting back into light workouts. He got back on the field and in the weight room at the end of December to start preparation for spring training.

"I wanted to feel rested," Zunino said. "I know I can go into spring training and continue my lifting schedule. I just wanted to get my hand-eye coordination back and get more comfortable with receiving."

Zunino now feels comfortable with where he is at on the field and ready to leave for Seattle Mariners spring training on February 9. He has spent the last few weeks working out with the Florida baseball team in Gainesville in preparation for his first spring training, one that he also earned an invitation to big league camp for.

The catching situation in Seattle sets up for Zunino to take the reigns in the future. He's just not sure when that will be. John Jaso started 39 games behind the plate for the Mariners last season and looked poised to have the job in 2013 before Seattle traded him to Oakland in mid-January.

Zunino admitted that trade stuck out to him when he first learned about it.

"It was definitely something that catches your attention," he said. "I was sitting there and saw it online and was like, "wow, that's incredible."

The catching options now dwindle to Jesus Montero and veterans Ronny Paulino and Kelly Shoppach. The belief is that Montero will eventually be moved out from behind the plate because of defensive concerns. Zunino and Double-A catcher Jesus Sucre will also be in major league camp.

It's an opportunity for Zunino to learn from veterans.

"All of a sudden we sign (Ronny) Paulino and then just signed Kelly Shoppach. I know Kelly Shoppach has a history with Eric Wedge, so he'll be a good game manager. I'm looking forward to playing with those guys.

"I'm going to try to learn as much as I can from those older guys. We have a young team, but everyone in the Major Leagues has at least one year of experience. They'll have a bunch of knowledge and things to help me out with. That's what I'm going to try to learn the most from. It's just exciting to be going out there and competing."

Zunino could reach the big leagues in 2013

Zunino recently flew to Seattle for the Mariners FanFest on January 26 and 27. It was a two-day event filled with autograph sessions, a question and answer setting and opportunities for kids to run the bases. There were over 18,000 fans that filtered into Safeco Field over that weekend, and it gave Zunino an opportunity to get to know some of the fans.

Playing his college ball on the opposite end of the country, Zunino didn't really know what to expect, but he wasn't surprised by his warm welcome from the fans.

"They really have a good fan base," Zunino said. "They have great fans, loyal fans. They all know the game. Talking to a bunch of them (at Fanfest) was a lot of fun. They all have high hopes for the Mariners. It's a cool fan base and a fun thing to be a part of."

The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since 2001, but it's an organization with plenty of young talent, especially on the mound. That's an exciting part for the franchise's future catcher. Zunino excelled at managing a pitching staff in Gainesville, and he'll have the chance to do it again in Seattle soon.

MLB.com's list of top prospects is sprinkled with future Mariners pitchers — right-hander Taijuan Walker at No. 5, left-hander Danny Hultzen at No. 18 and James Paxton at No. 61. Zunino, who came in at No. 23 on the same list, will be trusted to learn the future of the rotation.

And then there's Felix Hernandez. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner still anchors the pitching staff in Seattle.

There's plenty of young talent Zunino will be catching when he is called up to the major leagues, which could come as soon as 2013.

"That's the best part — we're all young," Zunino said. "They were talking about getting another veteran pitcher, but we have so much young talent that once everyone develops and gets up there, our staff is going to be really good."

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