Zunino shines in AFL championship win

Mike Zunino, the Mariners first-round Draft pick last June, wrapped up a nice Arizona Fall League season with a 3-for-5 game with two RBIs as Peoria beat Salt River 4-3 in Saturday’s AFL title game in Phoenix.

Zunino had run-scoring singles in both the first and second innings to get his team off to a quick 3-0 lead. He also singled sharply to left in the sixth and played the whole game at catcher, making the tag on a play at the plate in the bottom of the eighth to preserve Peoria’s one-run lead.

Nick Franklin, who has played second base most of the AFL season, went 0-for-5 with a pair of double-play grounders while batting cleanup for Peoria. Franklin did push home Peoria’s second run in the first inning with a double-play bouncer back to the mound.

Combined with his AFL regular-season, Zunino finished his fall season batting .306 with two home runs and 17 RBIs in 20 games. Franklin’s fall average dropped to .317 with his hitless outing, with two homers and 22 RBIs in 21 games.

Zunino and Franklin were the two Mariners prospects who started for Peoria. Carson Smith, a reliever who pitched Class A  ball last year, pitched a scoreless fourth inning with two strikeouts. He allowed a hit and walked a batter.

James Paxton, the other prominent Mariners prospect on the Peoria squad, didn’t pitch in the game as he was shut down last week after reaching his innings limit for the fall season.

There are lots of questions about how soon Zunino and Franklin will be ready to play for Seattle. MLB.com analyst Jonathan Mayo said during Saturday’s broadcast on the MLB Network that Zunino might have a chance to break camp next spring as the Mariners starting catcher.

That would surprise me, frankly. Zunino has impressed everywhere he’s been so far, but he played just 15 games of Double-A ball last year for Jackson after a strong showing at low-A Everett.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has been pretty consistent about saying anything can happen, but that it would be difficult for Zunino to make the jump to the Majors with that little Minor League experience.

Zunino will be invited to the Mariners big-league camp in the spring, though, and will get a good look. So we’ll see.

The same holds with Franklin. Though he’s had more Minor League time under his belt as a first-round Draft pick out of high school in 2009, he was still adjusting to Triple-A pitching last summer when he hit .243 in 64 games for Tacoma.

Both those guys look to be prominent parts of the Mariners future and my guess would be that we’ll see each of them at some point in 2013. I’d just be surprised if either breaks camp immediately with the big club out of Spring Training.

At this point in their career, playing every day in Triple-A would be more valuable than filling a bench role in the Majors. So unless they play so well in spring that a starting job with the Mariners is inevitable, look for both to open the year with the Rainiers and then get their shots midway through the year or in September, depending on how the season plays out.

Below is video of Zunino’s second hit in today’s game, and you can also read Mayo’s story on MLB.com that includes some quotes from the young catcher following the game.

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