PORT CHARLOTTE — Mike Zunino arrived at Rays camp on Friday and immediately started catching bullpen sessions. His preparation for a new organization began months ago.
Physically, he feels like he’s at home. Port Charlotte is 30 miles north of his hometown of Cape Coral. He played his college ball in Gainesville at the University of Florida.
"Can't even put it into words," Zunino said on Tuesday. "It's good to be home."
The rest is new. Being with the Mariners — who made him the third overall pick in 2012 — is all he’s ever known. Now, he must get used to a new team and an entirely different pitching staff.
The Rays acquired Zunino, a deal that cost the team speedy outfielder Mallex Smith, for what he can do behind the plate, how he can handle pitchers and how he can call a game. His defensive acumen is one of the best. His 1.7 defensive WAR last season, according to Baseball Reference, led all AL catchers.
And as the Rays hold their first spring training workout for pitchers and catchers on Wednesday at Charlotte Sports Park, the 27-year-old’s plate is full. He realizes that every moment will be valuable in learning about his new staff.
“You use every time you can here in spring, whether it’s eating in the food room, whether its talking between bullpens, whether they’re shagging BP and you’re out there talking to them,” Zunino said. “It’s a process where it’s never ending, especially in the spring. ... And I’m just really getting looking forward to getting this spring rolling, catching some guys and developing some relationships.”
Zunino enters spring training having done his homework. Shortly after he was acquired in November, he reached out to the team to get video of the pitchers he's most likely work with.
“Hopefully not too long,” Zunino said of how long his adjustment might take. “You know the guys who are going to be with the club, you know the starters, you know the guys who are either going to be in the bullpen or follow them. You really have to do your due diligence on those guys, make sure your relationship are to point where they trust you once the game and the season rolls around.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash said he’s already taken notice of the way Zunino is working with pitchers.
“We’re going to get him up to speed on some stuff,” Cash said. "But we’re going to lean on him because he’s dealt with some young pitchers and some of the growing pains with that, and some of his knowledge is only going to help us get better.
“He came in on Friday and caught a bunch of guys and the interaction that he had with the pitchers and then also with (pitching coach) Kyle Snyder, Kyle said it was outstanding,” Cash said. “To have a guy with his track record of some of the pitchers he’s caught; you could argue that Felix Hernandez has been one of the game’s best the last decade.”
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Zunino saw the Rays use the opener strategy from afar in Seattle, and in the few days he’s been in Port Charlotte. He said he’s quickly gained a better understanding of what’s behind the unconventional philosophy and how it will affect the way he calls a game.
“You have to treat it like the game is on the line, as if its the seventh or eighth,” Zunino said. "Obviously, there’s a little more game planning in the sense that a lot of these guys coming in aren’t three, four-pitch guys. They’re stuff guys. And you go after their best three hitters with our best guys. With that, you stick to our guys’ strength to exploit some weaknesses there, and once you turn it over to the follower guy coming in after him, that’s when you kind of implement the game plan to get through the lineup a few times.
“You can kind of see the premise around it and why they did it,” Zunino said. “But I think the biggest thing to is that you have to have the right guys who fit that mold. You have to have the right guys that come in after the opener, and when you see what they are doing and giving young guys an opportunity to pitch and then follow these relievers that can set the tone early, it takes some pressure off. It’s exciting to see and I’m excited to keep going through spring and learning more through it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.