The month of February often brings sky-high expectations to the state of Florida. There’s the start of Major League Baseball Spring Training, the annual running of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and the first influx of early spring-breakers, just to name a few things on the calendar.
In and around the city of Gainesville, however, nothing is anticipated more or greeted with higher expectations than the start of the University of Florida’s baseball season, and this February is certainly no exception.
Gators’ catcher Mike Zunino, a 2011 Perfect Game First Team All-American and 2012 PG First Team Preseason All-American, isn’t about to back down from those lofty expectations. This will assuredly be Zunino’s final spring spent in Gainesville, and on the first day of spring practice Jan. 27, it seemed no one was anticipating the upcoming season more than he was.
“We’re just looking to have another great year,” Zunino said in a telephone conversation with Perfect Game just hours before heading off to the Gators’ first spring practice session. “We have a bunch of guys returning and we all have the same goal in mind. We left it a little bit short last year and we’re looking forward to keep playing well and make the strides we need to win that last game of the season.”
Florida finished as national runner-up in 2011 after losing the best-of-3 championship series to Southeastern Conference (SEC) rival South Carolina, 2-0, at the NCAA Division I College World Series in Omaha last June. The Gators – a consensus preseason No. 1 this season – finished 53-19 overall (a school record for wins in a season) and won the regular-season SEC championship with a 22-8 record.
They return all three of their weekend pitchers from last season – right-handers Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA) and Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40), and lefty Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62) – and six starting position players. None of those position players is more prominent than Zunino.
A 6-foot-2, 220-pound right-handed power hitter with exceptional defensive skills behind the plate, Zunino was named the 2011 SEC Player of the Year after a sophomore season in which he was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, and a semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes Award the Dick Howser Trophy.
He ranked among the SEC league leaders in batting average (.371), total bases (178), hits (98), runs (75), doubles (23), home runs (19), slugging percentage (.674) and on-base percentage (.442). He finished with a.995 fielding percentage after committing just three errors in 570 chances.
Those are all impressive numbers, but numbers from a season now in the history books. A new collegiate season awaits the 2009 graduate of Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla.
“I’m healthy right now and I’m going to do everything I can to stay that way,” Zunino said. “The fall (practice sessions) went very well; I got a lot of at-bats and I also got to catch a lot of the new arms. I had a good, solid fall … and it was a good time to just get everyone together and get on the same page.”
The Oakland Athletics selected Zunino in the 29th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, but he didn’t sign and headed for Gainesville. With him every step of the way is his father Greg Zunino, a professional scout for the past 23 years who is beginning his 11th season with the Cincinnati Reds organization this year.
Greg Zunino was able to watch his son develop his game from two distinctive perspectives – that of a father and that of a talent evaluator.
“I enjoy watching him play because I think he plays the game the right way, and I hope I had a little something to do with that,” Greg said. “I talked to (minor league manager) Tom Kotchman, whose son is Casey (Kotchman), and he went through the same thing … and we’d say we’ll probably be their harshest critics because we know all of their faults.”
Zunino played in the infield right up until he went to high school and was actually the starting shortstop on Mariner’s varsity squad as a freshman. He moved behind the plate the next season and was the Fightin’ Tritons’ starting catcher his last three high school seasons
“Bob Boone told me a long time ago when I asked him when he would move a kid behind the plate, and he said, ‘Only when it’s absolutely necessary,’” Greg said. “I’ve always thought (Mike) was a very good catcher; very athletic back there. I think I saw the same thing as a lot of these scouts that the only question was going to be on his hitting, but he seems to be very confident now and has developed a nice approach.”
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, immediately noticed a nice balance in Zunino’s game.
“His bat is a plus, but he is the player who he is because he can separate his offense from his defense,” O’Sullivan told gatorcountry.com last year. “He has been outstanding since day one defensively.”
Zunino was identified as one of the country’s top catching prospects while participating in 22 Perfect Game events between late 2005 and early 2009. Cape Coral lies just across the Caloosahattchee River from Fort Myers, the city where PG stages as many as 20 tournaments and showcases each year, and his attendance at those events was certainly manageable.
Playing primarily for Fort Myers-based SWFL Baseball, Zunino played in 16 PG WWBA and BCS tournaments, including three WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Fla. His six showcase events included stops at the 2007 National Underclass Showcase, 2007 PG Aflac Showcase, 2008 PG National Showcase and the 2008 PG World Showcase.
He was also selected to play in the 2008 Aflac All-American Classic, now known as the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings.
“It opened me up to new experiences and let me see how other people played from around the country and the state of Florida,” Zunino said of his association with Perfect Game. “It gave me a gauge to sort of see myself compared with everybody else, and it was one of those deals where you see you have a lot of work to do when compared to other people. You try to be the best you can be, the experience really showed me that everybody’s working hard across the country and I needed to that also.”
Throughout the process, Zunino leaned heavily on the advice of his father, as well as that of his mother, Paola. He said it’s always been easy to talk to his father about baseball, and not only in terms of winning and losing games.
“I can talk to him about the game and get information from him that he’s seen or he’s experienced and just get another opinion that’s sort of an outside angle that really helps me out,” Zunino said. “I just communicate well with him.”
Kendall Rogers, Perfect Game’s Managing Editor of College Baseball, not only named Zunino a First Team Preseason All-American but went one step further by naming him the PG Preseason Player of the Year.
Rogers also recognized Zunino as the No. 1 catcher in his first position-by-position College Power Rankings, noting “Zunino is absolutely the complete package for the Gators. He’s got the defense, consistent bat and power all in one.”
Zunino has never regretted turning down an A’s offer back in 2009 and choosing instead to spend three years in Gainesville. Working with O’Sullivan and the rest of the Florida staff became an education in itself.
“I had a lot of learning to do and a lot of baseball to learn how to play. Coming here and maturing as a player and a person was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Zunino said.
“The coaches and the school have taught me so much,” he continued. “You mature as a person being out at college and being on your own. The coaching staff here does a great job of developing you as a ballplayer – I couldn’t be luckier with the coaches that I have now and they’ve helped me tremendously in every aspect of the game.”
The 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft will be conducted June 4-6, beginning on the final day of play in the NCAA Division I regional tournaments. Perfect Game ranks Zunino as the No. 5 overall draft prospect, and if the Kansas City Royals do take him with the No. 5 pick, he could be looking at an MLB-slotted $3.5 million payday.
“I’m focused on the college season. We’ve got a great group of guys here and a great group of coaches,” Zunino said. “We play for each other and you don’t really have time to get caught up in (thinking about the draft). We have a bigger goal in mind where we go out and play for each other and we just focus on the college season, and we know whatever’s going to work out is going to work out the way it’s supposed to.”
Working for the Reds has afforded Greg Zunino ample opportunities to watch Mike play during his college career, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. Scouting SEC teams is a big part of what Greg does, and he can go to the Florida games and write reports on any number of players from the opposing teams, like national powers South Carolina, LSU, Vanderbilt and, this year, Texas A&M.
The Reds have the No. 14 overall selection in this year’s draft. Depending on the specific needs of the 13 teams that pick before Cincinnati, it’s not very likely Mike Zunino’s name will still be on the board when the Reds make their first selection.
“I’ll be watching (the early selections) to see if a lot of the kids I like in Florida get drafted,” Greg said. “Hopefully I’ll hear his name well before our pick.”