When Brad Zunica made the unorthodox decision to skip his senior year at Lakewood Ranch High and enroll at the University of Miami a year early to play baseball, it began his path as a unique major-league prospect.
After three years of gathering experience in the ACC, he would have been only 20.
But after one year in Coral Gables with only sporadic playing time, Zunica made another decision that ended up accelerating his MLB Draft time line even more. Searching for more consistent at-bats, Zunica transferred to State College of Florida and now, after one year back in Bradenton, the 19-year-old could be heading to professional baseball with two years of college experience.
The Padres used their 15th-round pick, No. 447 overall, to take Zunica in the 2015 MLB First-Year Player Draft on Wednesday. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound first baseman was the third Manatee to be chosen, joining shortstops Mitch Piatnik and Brantley Bell.
“I’m definitely excited for the opportunity,” Zunica said, “and grateful that the Padres are giving me the chance to continue my professional career.”
The former Herald All-Area Player of the Year flew out to San Diego for a workout on Sunday, which made him think the Padres were a potential destination. On Wednesday, he got a call from a Padres representative telling him he was about to be chosen, which gave him a chance to watch his name be called on MLB.com’s live stream.
His decision on whether to sign with the Padres or fulfill his commitment to Division II champion University of Tampa will come down to his negotiations with the club.
“I’m definitely considering it,” Zunica said.
With his rare combination of age and power, Zunica knew he was going to be appealing to Major League scouts. After batting .174 without a home run in 40 at-bats during his only season as a Hurricane, he transferred to SCF for his sophomore year and blossomed into one of the best junior-college power hitters in Florida.
In 196 at-bats for SCF, Zunica batted .311 and slugged .597. His 13 home runs were tied for 14th in the nation.
He told head coach Tim Hill II this wasn’t a product of moving down a level — the pitching, he told him, was just as good as the pitching he saw at Miami — but rather the sheer number of at-bats he got with the Manatees allowed him to improve rapidly.
“He got to play every day,” Hill said. “It’s tough to get better when you have 40 at-bats.”