Zunino ready for fresh start behind the plate

Mariners' catcher will likely begin season at Triple-A, but is working to stay in Majors

Zunino ready for fresh start behind the plate

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For Mike Zunino, the message couldn't have come at a better time. New manager Scott Servais has spent much of this spring telling his new team to just be themselves, trust the talents that got them to this level in the first place and go out and play.

After two years of tying himself into knots trying to adjust his batting approach and live up to the expectations of being the starting catcher of a big league club at ages 22 and 23, Zunino has been given a fresh start.

That start will likely come at Triple-A Tacoma, with Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto making it clear they want to allow Zunino as much time as he needs this season to find himself offensively after being rushed to the Mariners in 2013 with just 96 games of Minor League experience.

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Zunino isn't conceding anything this spring. He's working hard to show he belongs in the Majors, but he does understand that his .193 batting average over 295 games with Seattle the past 2 1/2 seasons has led to this situation.

"My job is just to go out there and compete and play baseball to the best of my abilities," Zunino said. "Everything else, that's sort of where the pressure is off me. They'll make that decision, and I'll just go work and get better wherever I go. I just want to show them I'm ready to play."

Servais on successful opener

Zunino's defense and ability to handle a pitching staff have never been an issue, and he's hit 33 homers over the past two seasons. But it's hard to cover up a sub-.200 average and a .252 on-base percentage.

Even a huge spring last year didn't carry over to the regular season, which is why Zunino said the biggest thing this season will be staying with one approach and trusting it.

"My first few games, I felt good and didn't have anything to show for it," he said. "And I started trying to make tweaks right away instead of trusting what I did that whole time. A lot of that is on me, trying to change too quick and not trusting what I'm doing. And that sort of started a little tailspin."

Zunino spent the offseason trying to get back to square one with his hitting approach, and he began that process, interestingly enough, during a 10-day retreat at teammate Kyle Seager's North Carolina home.

"It was just me and him focused on hitting," Zunino said. "We'd talked about it quite a bit during the season last year. Obviously, Kyle knows quite a bit mechanically and he knows that, in the season, it's really hard to make drastic changes. It was early in the offseason, so it was a clean slate, my first time picking up a bat and working on stuff. So it was engrained from there and I've just continued to work on that."

Seager was happy to help a friend and teammate work on his craft.

"It was nice," Seager said. "We're close and our wives are good friends as well. What was really good was we could hit in the morning, really talk about some stuff in detail, then spend the rest of the day fishing or just hanging out with everybody. It made it a very stress-free environment."

So now Zunino is starting anew with a more open hitting stance and a clear mind. While the new regime brought in veterans Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger to handle the Major League catching duties while Zunino works at Tacoma initially, he's welcomed the fresh approach.

"It's definitely nice to come in and have new faces everywhere," Zunino said. "It lets me hit that restart button and be myself, and trust what I've been doing. They told me to be myself and have fun, and that's all I'm trying to do this camp. Everyone brings different attributes and skill sets. For them to say, 'Just be yourself and bring what you can to the table,' is nice and takes a lot of pressure off people."

Servais, a former big league catcher, likes what he's seen so far.

"He has no problem on the defensive end," Servais said. "He's talented. He throws well. His receiving is outstanding. It's going to come down to offense. There are some adjustments that he's made and we'll see how it carries over into games. But Mike's in a good spot. I think he knows what's ahead of him."

Iannetta's two-run homer

And Iannetta, the veteran who is now directly ahead of Zunino, believes Zunino's future remains bright.

"He's one of the most talented catchers I've seen and a great kid, too," Iannetta said. "I feel like I've known him my whole life. Very professional, very personal. And offensive and defensively, his talent is off the charts. You watch, he's going to be one of the best catchers in the game for a long time."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.