Padres’ Minor League First Baseman Brad Zunica is Standing Tall

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Credit: Journal Gazette
Credit: Journal Gazette

At 6′ 6″ and 255 lbs, Brad Zunica has great size and strength to be a legit power threat for the Padres for a long time. His left-handed swing is more than capable of generating enough torque to power fastballs over fences for years to come. At the age of 20, Zunica is still presently very raw but the Padres are pleased with his growth as a player.

He played in 110 games this year for the Fort Wayne TinCaps. It was very nice to see this young man make it through his first entire season of professional baseball. Zunica had a slash line of .242/.294/.401 with 14 homers and 61 RBI while playing first base. His numbers dipped a bit from 2015, where in 35 games he hit .271 with seven homers and 24 RBI. His OPS dropped as well, from .825 to .696. His strikeout totals also climbed slightly this season, but that is to be expected with the higher level of pitching. He is still learning his abilities and it will take time for the 15th round selection to fully learn himself as a hitter.

Brad Zunica has tons of power. His frame dictates that the home runs will increase as he gets older and as he learns to utilize his size better. The first baseman is currently in Arizona participating in the Padres Instructional League. Recent left wrist tendonitis has slowed his workouts, but he assures me that it is nothing serious.

In researching his season, I noticed that he had a monster July (.281 six homers and 23 RBI in 96 at bats) followed by a cold August (.189 zero homers and five RBI in 95 at bats). I quickly asked if the wrist injury had anything to do with it. He immediately squashed that idea and owned up to his slow August. Extremely refreshing comments from a player who could have very easily written off his troubles to injury.

“The wrist didn’t have anything to do with it (slow August). I kinda got away from my approach and had a couple of bad games. It spiraled from there and I could not get out of it.” Again, the honesty here from this young man is great. He is wise beyond his years and it is nice to see a player true to himself in regards to his struggles. I expect this young man to make the proper adjustments in the coming seasons. You learn more from failure than you do with success in the game of baseball. Zunica is not afraid to fail, and with that, he is also not afraid to learn. And learning is exactly what he is still doing at the minor league level.

He described his first pro season as “going pretty well…. and full of ups and downs.” That sounds about right for a young player. I am positive that he has great memories, as well as games he would love to forget. So is the life of a professional ball player. The key is not to let the highs get you too up and not to let the downs get you too low. I have had the pleasure of speaking to Brad several times and you can be sure he understands that. He is very level-headed, and with that personality, he should be able to grow in the sport.

Credit: AP Photo
Credit: AP Photo

“I learned about myself with the length of the season. I learned what I need to do moving forward to get more consistent.” He understands that consistency is the key to longevity in this game. If you cannot stay consistent and make adjustments, you will get eaten up by the game of baseball and become another statistic. You will become just another prospect who failed to make the proper changes for success. The Padres do not have to worry about that when it comes to Zunica. He will prepare himself and he has the proper work ethic.

Defense at first base has been an issue for him in the past, but he improved vastly this year. Another positive sign for his growth as a player. Zunica’s fielding percentage went from .974 in 2015 to .985 in 2016. He has also shown more flexibility playing the position. Brad spoke about developing a pregame routine when preparing to play the field. That has helped him be mentally ready for action. The Padres have also trusted him at the position where he played over 730 innings this year. With that experience at first, he has improved each month. He probably will never be a gold-glove first baseman, but there is no reason to believe he will be a negative for the team at the position moving forward. Who knows, he could surprise you down the road. Don’t bet against this young man.

We spoke briefly about the season Fort Wayne had, and in particular we discussed Austin Allen. Brad and Austin Allen are pretty good friends and he witnessed the growth in the catcher first hand. “He finds a way to get it done no matter what. He has a really good approach and he stays with it no matter who is on the mound. He is a really good hitter.” Brad spoke about Allen’s ability to stay level-headed and that is surely a reason why the young catcher has had success early in his career. We also spoke about Peter Van Gansen, whom Brad describes as a “good guy” and a “clubhouse guy” first off. According to Zunica, Van Gansen plays the game the right way and is clutch on the field. The second baseman played in 125 games this season, and like Zunica, his numbers dipped a bit from his first half-year of pro ball in 2015. That is to be expected with young players and the Padres are certainly not concerned. At this point it is about work ethic and playing the game the right way. The hits will come and so will the numbers, if you continue on the correct path.

The 2016 Padres draft picks were discussed. Eric Lauer, Cal Quantrill and Joey Lucchesi all made it to the A-Ball level and Zunica had a chance to see each of them throw. ” They are good. They keep their composure well. All three have really good stuff. It’s going to be a pleasure playing with them and seeing what they can do. The talent is there. There is a lot of pitching talent on this team… It is nice going to the ballpark and knowing you always have a chance to be in the game no matter what. They are dominant. All of them.”

Credit: Journal Gazette
Credit: Journal Gazette

Manager Anthony Contreras had a very young and extremely talented team on his hands this season in Fort Wayne. He also figures to have many more talented squads in the near future, so I wanted to get an idea of the manager and his style. ” He is a great guy. A very hard worker. He has all his players’ backs. He is very big on staying within your routines and trusting the process. It’s comforting knowing that you have a manager you can go to with any problems you might have.” Sounds like Contreras is a players manager, but at the same time he provides a fatherly figure to these young players who are just starting out their professional careers.

The conversation turned more towards Brad and his numbers this season. I wanted to pick his brain a little bit and I brought up his numbers against left-handed pitchers (.224 in 125 at bats). I asked him about facing lefties and if he was comfortable. ” I definitely need to work on it (numbers facing left-handed pitchers) and get as many at bats against them as possible. As far as a comfort thing, to me it is more about pitch selection than comfort. I like to chase a little bit, and a leftie’s slider breaks away from me. I just need to recognize pitches better. The more at bats I get against left-handed pitchers, the better I will get”. I agree. I believe left-handed hitters should be allowed to face left-handed pitchers in order to get their timing down, especially at the minor league level. Of course it isn’t an easy thing facing a tough pitcher whose breaking ball cuts away from you. However the more you see it, the easier it will be to recognize it in the future. I am glad the Padres are allowing him to face lefties as that will only cultivate his talents more.

He hasn’t set any particular goals as of yet for the 2017 season, but tells me he is working on improving his lateral quickness and getting into better shape than he was this year. Improving his defense even more is a big goal for him. He does not want to be known as a sub par defender and with his continuous work ethic, those old scouting reports will be just that. Old news.

Zunica is already a decent defender with plus power. He does strike out too much presently and his plate discipline needs to improve. He is already well aware of his weaknesses in the game and is working hard on rectifying them. Zunica will be 21 years old very soon and still has his whole baseball life ahead of him. The choices he makes and work he puts in for the next few years will shape his baseball future. I would not bet against this young man. He loves the game and has the skill to succeed. With a little luck, and tons of hard work, you will one day know exactly who Brad Zunica is.

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