Thiel: Zunino nice pick -- as are many Mariners

Thiel: Zunino nice pick -- as are many Mariners

Credit: Getty Images

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 27: Catcher Robert Beary #4 of the South Carolina Gamecocks makes the out against Mike Zunino #3 of the Florida Gators in the 9th inning during game 1 of the men's 2011 NCAA College Baseball World Series at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha on June 27, 2011 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on June 5, 2012 at 7:44 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 5 at 10:30 AM

Player development in baseball is like no other. Elite players are often years in the making, but on one day early in their baseball lives, a decision is made. Player and the club are judged forever on that moment.

One would think baseball could improve on the practices of marriage. It has not.

Marriage, in fact, has one big advantage over baseball: A one-spouse maximum. You may have consecutive, but not concurrent.

It is brought up now, on the day of the annual draft, because the Mariners are married, figuratively, to a lot of players who are close in youth and talent. Unfortunately, they are not very close to contention.

Or as general manager Jack Zduriencik put it Monday:

"How many young guys can you play?"

By all accounts, the draft of Mike Zunino, a 21-year-old catcher from the University of Florida, is a substantive choice -- strong, hardnosed, smart, a team leader from a baseball family who plays well the most difficult position in the game. But not a game-changing talent.

Like most all of the current young Mariners.

Zunino, a good catcher who projects to be a so-so hitter, isn't going to be a candidate for a major-league roster for probably three years. Meantime, the Mariners have to find at-bats and innings for a passel of players who were earlier Zuninos, including Jesus Montero, 22, a hitter who may or may not also be a catcher.

Without a prime-time hitter in the middle, the young Mariners on the 2012 roster are candidates to hit everywhere, and not well, nor at all.

That's why this season is so hard, and the 24-32 mark entering Monday's game in Anaheim only a partial reflection of it.

The addition of a fifth playoff team in each league this season has stretched the definition of contention, although Zduriencik knows it hasn't quite stretched to include the Mariners.

"First and foremost we gotta get back in this thing," he said. "We're playing better, and  that's fun to see. The next few weeks will define ourselves a little more. Then you have to be realistic about what we're trying to do, whether it's bringing up kids or adding something."

A five-game winning streak could set off the Mariners on a false belief that 2012 is worth pursuing. Even smart guys like Zduriencik knows how easy it is to succumb.

"Every week is different," he said. "If you talked to me three weeks ago, I'd have felt differently than I do now."

The problem is that, with so many inexperienced players having to learn simultaneously at the major league level, the daily lineup card is an adventure in denial for someone. Zduriencik knows in his head that players can't be pushed to adapt more quickly, but his heart -- and his wallet, which prefers employment -- gets the urge to make a run.

"If we really make some strides this year . . ." he said, then seemed to catch himself. "We don't know who's going to get be called up this year, or whether we get into a race for the final wild card.

"The worst thing you can do is set a timetable for a player. The player will dictate his timetable. To say, 'July 1 we'll do something,'  is foolish."

But the urge to give major league experience to many in strong. Even with pitchers. As much as it would dismay fans and the Mariners to see Felix Hernandez put on the 15-day disabled list to help heal his bothersome back problems -- not happening yet, according to Zduriencik --  it would create opportunity for a couple of spot starts for one of the younger stars in the minors.

As for sorting out the catchers, Zunino, once signed, probably will be invited to the major league camp next spring for a courtesy look --  Zduriencik trotted out the old bromide, "You can never have too many catchers."

But it would be handy for Wedge to have one he can have for 120 games behind the plate. Just as it would be in left field, DH, third base, shortstop and closer. But that's not for this season. Maybe for next season.

As with marriages, there always the hope that if you have enough of them, one will work out.

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