Gators' Mike Zunino taken 3rd overall

Updated: June 5, 2012, 4:41 AM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mike Zunino's goal all along was to help the Florida baseball team win its first national championship. He earned a spot in program history in the process.

Zunino became the highest-drafted player in UF history when the Seattle Mariners took him third overall in the MLB draft on Monday night. Former UF first baseman Matt LaPorta held that distinction when he was drafted seventh overall by Milwaukee in 2007 -- the last time a UF player was selected in the first round.

"I'm just extremely honored," Zunino said on a conference call. "I got a call maybe 15, 20 minutes before draft (from Mariners officials), and I was extremely ecstatic when I heard my name called by the commissioner."

Zunino said he got a good feeling about the Mariners after he had dinner with Tom McNamara, the team's scouting director, and three other Mariners scouts during the offseason.

"It definitely gave me a little bit of a good feeling," Zunino said. "It was the only team that had done that, and it definitely showed they had interest. It's just one of these things that helped me breathe a little bit easier."

Zunino, who earlier on Monday was named one of three finalists for the 2012 Johnny Bench Award, leads the Gators (45-18) in doubles (27), home runs (18), RBIs (60) and slugging (.667). He's also hitting .316.

But it's his defensive skills and the way he handles pitchers that has drawn constant praise from UF coach Kevin O'Sullivan throughout Zunino's three seasons at UF. MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons echoed those compliments when he was interviewed shortly after Zunino was selected.

"He's got tremendous savvy behind the plate," Gammons said. "He's very strong, he's going to hit home runs, but he's really good at handling pitchers."

Defense first, offense second is the way Zunino says he approaches the game.

"I just want to be a well-rounded player," said Zunino, the 13th UF player to be selected in the first round. "Most important thing is to take pride in my defense. That's what really defines me as a player. I want to be a good, solid figure back there, help the pitchers out, and whatever I can do at-bat to help the team out."

Zunino was a 30th-round selection by Oakland in the 2009 draft out of high school. He said he's much better equipped for professional baseball now than he was three years ago after his time at Florida, which included a pair of College World Series appearances and being named the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year in 2011.

"I've matured so much since high school," he said. "I've learned that there's a lot more to the game than hitting, catching and throwing. I've learned how to think through things, to take one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time. Off the field I've just matured, knowing to get my priorities in the right line and work hard and let everything fall into place."

Zunino could have a somewhat quick path to the big leagues, according to ESPN MLB draft expert Kiley McDaniel, even though the Mariners traded for catcher Jesus Montero last season.

The 22-year-old Montero -- who was razzed by teammates and coaches in the clubhouse after the Mariners selected Zunino -- has been thrust into the starting spot because of a groin injury to Miguel Olivo, but there are significant concerns about his defense, and several ESPN MLB analysts predict an eventual position change.

"Zunino doesn't have any true plus tools but has above-average tools across the board as a low-risk college performer who can be a solid average defender in the big leagues," McDaniel wrote in analyzing the selection. "His bat is good, not great, with a likely upside as a .270-.280 hitter with 15-18 home runs, but that's above average for a catcher.

"In a weak draft, a low-risk, above-average everyday catcher is a great pick and the Mariners can soon abandon the Jesus Montero-behind-the-plate experiment, as Zunino could come quickly."

Florida pitcher Brian Johnson had a much longer wait than Zunino -- as long as it could possibly get.

But Johnson finally heard his name called when the Boston Red Sox selected the left-hander with the final pick of the first round (31st overall). His selection gives the Gators two first-round picks for the first time since 1983, when pitcher Rich Rice and shortstop Robby Thompson were taken by Baltimore and San Francisco, respectively, in the June secondary draft.

Johnson is one of five finalists for the 2012 John Olerud Award, which is presented to the nation's top two-way player. Johnson is 8-4 with a 3.56 ERA and is hitting .310 with 40 RBIs and five home runs. He's been a first-team All-SEC selection the past two seasons.

The Gators also potentially lost another player on Monday night when Texas took signee Lewis Brinson of Tamarac, Fla./Coral Springs with the 29th pick. Brinson has work to do offensively but is a good athlete with very good speed in the outfield.

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter

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