When the San Diego Padres drafted Brad Zunica in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft, they were impressed by one thing: his power. More specifically, they liked his power from the left side.
Zunica was drafted from State College of Florida Manatee where he led his team in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. The scouts obviously saw some promise in the 6’6″ first baseman, but he was still raw enough to keep from moving too high on the draft board.
Last season, Zunica showed that he had power, leading the Fort Wayne TinCaps with 14 home runs. He showed promise, but his 35.9% K rate didn’t help production, and was made worse by his miniscule 5.7% walk rate. Regardless of his power potential, it’s difficult to do damage with a .294 OBP.
This season, he’s playing like a man on a mission. For much of the season he’s shared playing time at first base with G.K. Young, but despite the lack of playing time, he’s still leading the team in home runs and slugging. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jorge Oña have the edge in RBI, but both of them have over 50 more at bats than Zunica.
Not only is Zunica leading the TinCaps, he’s a leader in the Midwest League. He’s tied for second in home runs in the league. It’s worth noting that the league leader, Emmanuel Tapia, has 87 more at bats with only 5 more home runs. Zunica is also fourth in the league in slugging (.536) and fifth in OPS (.909).
He also appears to have fixed his on-base issues from 2016. After walking just 25 times all of last year, he’s already worked 34 free passes in less than half the time, good for a 13.8% walk rate. At just 21 years old, it’s a promising start, even if he’s repeating a level.
Room for Improvement
Zunica still has some room for improvement. His strikeout percentage has improved some form earlier in the season, but it’s still at 33.6%, which could obviously take a hit as he faces better pitching. It helps that he’s hitting a lot of home runs, but he will need to bring down those strikeouts to be effective at higher levels.
Even though he has shown some stability defensively at first base, there are some concerns. In 51 games at first base this season (Zunica has also been the designated hitter for Fort Wayne), he has eight errors – tied for the second worst among first basemen in the Midwest League. He’s on pace to have more errors than the 12 he committed last season, and that’s with a much reduced workload.
There is good news for the Zunica and the Padres. Many players have had similar struggles even at the major league level and have powered through with dedication and hard work. Power is a difficult tool to teach, Zunica has more of that than pretty much everyone in Single-A. Plus, the selectivity and plate discipline seem to be improving.
With Josh Naylor getting promoted to Double-A San Antonio, it opens up a hole at first base in High-A Lake Elsinore. Whether or not it’s filled by Zunica, he’s still a prospect that’s worth keeping an eye on.