PEORIA, Ariz. — He arrived at Mariners camp last year in a maelstrom of controversy not of his making.

Jarred Kelenic seethed at the suggestion, brought into plain sight by then-team president Kevin Mather, that the Mariners had manipulated his service time in 2020. And once that controversy died down, he endured the longest, most agonizing slump of his career immediately upon realizing his lifelong dream of making it to the major leagues.

You could see the stress on his face during almost every at-bat, before and after a return trip to the minor leagues.

And then Jarred Kelenic came out on the other side of his struggles, all the better for having gone through them. He had a highly productive final month in the pressure of a playoff chase, and delivered one of the most stirring hits in recent Mariners history on the last Friday of the season.

If you’re looking for one word that should fill Mariners fans with hope that Kelenic can soar in 2022 — vitally important to their contention chances — it’s this: comfort.

Comfort with his surroundings. Comfort with his teammates. Comfort with his role on the team. And comfort with the Mariners organization that belies the tension that existed a year ago.

Advertising

“I definitely think where we’re at right now, as a team, as an organization, is probably the best I’ve ever seen it,” he said Tuesday. “And I can’t thank (general manager) Jerry (Dipoto) enough. He easily could have had me go back down to Triple-A and say, ‘Hey, listen, he’s not ready. He’s not performing.’

“But that guy, he left me up there and made me sink or swim. And that was what I needed. And he knew that. And so I give him all the credit in the world for keeping me up there and letting me learn on my own. Because the only way I was going to learn is if I was up there. … We’re in an unbelievable spot.”

Kelenic, who entered 2021 as one of the top prospects in baseball, wound up hitting just .181, including an 0-for-42 slump that ended right after his monthlong demotion to Tacoma. But he put together an .855 OPS with seven homers in September/October that he and the Mariners hope will carry over to 2022.

Kelenic reiterated what he said last year — that his struggles humbled him and will turn out to be one of the best things to ever happen to his career.

“I know what it’s like when stuff goes really, really bad,” he said. “And then toward the end, I started to experience when it was going really well. And not just personally, but with our team.”

You also can’t underestimate the peace of mind that comes with knowing the routines and rhythms of a major-league season — and a major-league clubhouse. That’s something that comes only with having lived it. It’s easy to forget that Kelenic was just 21 when he was called up.

Advertising

“I think anytime you go to the major leagues, it’s really an intimidating thing, because you’re so used to seeing the ballparks, the players on TV,” he said. “And once you get to spend time with them, and talk to them and hang around guys like Mitch (Haniger), JP (Crawford), K-Lew (Kyle Lewis), it humanizes them and makes them no different than you are. And just that comfortable factor, I think it will be the difference maker in how it’ll make you take off.”

Mariners manager Scott Servais noticed Kelenic appears much more relaxed this spring. He believes the strong finish helped ease Kelenic’s mind and restore his confidence.

“It certainly got him through the offseason, where, ‘OK, I can do this. I still need to get better and clean up some of the things that allowed me to get into the hole that I dug for myself.’

“He certainly doesn’t want to go there again, but he just is different. You watch him take his BP, how easy he’s swinging. That’s one of the things that he’s talked about is the great players make it look really easy.”

Right before the lockout, knowing he might not get another chance to speak to him for a while, Servais laid out with Kelenic his expectations for the offseason. The ballclub particularly wanted him to condition his body to prepare for the possibility of remaining in center field.

“We didn’t want to see him turn into the big, bulky corner outfield guys, to still be able to move well in center field,” Servais said. “And he did. He worked really hard on in his training. I think he looks great. I was a little worried he’d come in too big.”

Advertising

There was some thought the Mariners would pursue a more traditional center fielder in the offseason, but barring an unexpected move, Kelenic will return to the position after putting up subpar defensive metrics last year. The Mariners would like to see Kelenic become more of a take-charge guy in center field. At times last year, he was indecisive and it allowed some balls to drop in.

In addition to working with a trainer to put on muscle but stay lean, Kelenic said he worked on swing mechanics as well as his mental approach during the offseason. That came after taking a break until late November to clear his head.

“I’m glad I started when I did, because right now I feel super-great at the plate,” he said. “And my swing is in a great spot. Now it’s just about maintaining it.”

Servais believes the addition of Jesse Winker, a fellow left-handed hitter who also had to deal the weight of expectations as a top draft pick out of high school, will be invaluable to Kelenic. The two have been in the same hitting group since Winker’s arrival.

“I think Jesse’s going to help Jarred a lot,” Servais said. “Jesse really likes to talk hitting, and Jarred does as well. It’s just an instant connection. You saw right away.”

Said Winker: “Jarred is a special player, man. A special talent, only 22 years old and built like a running back. Great bat speed, great swing. I’m all for left-handed swings, and he’s got he’s got a very pretty one. It’s going to be fun to play alongside him and watch him flourish and become a superstar.”

Sponsored

Kelenic is eager to mentor another highly touted young Mariners player who should reach the majors this season, Julio Rodriguez. He believes he can help Rodriguez, 21, navigate some of the pitfalls that befell him last year.

“The biggest thing I’m going to do is try to help him do is slow things down,” Kelenic said. “In my experience there was a lot of times where I sped things up, and we all saw how that went.”

Now, in Year 2, the baseball world has slowed to a comfortable speed for Kelenic. And he believes that will help him get through the inevitable ups and downs of a long season — lessons learned the hard way

“When you look at it from a bird’s-eye view now, there was no reason to stress,” he said. “It’s kind of propelled me to this year. There could be a week span where I’m not seeing the ball well. Now I know that it’s all good. Don’t stress out. Because literally the next week, I can have the best week of my life, and not even remember that week.

It’s all about taking some of the things I learned from last year, the struggles that I had, and applying it to this year, because there’s no reason that last year should happen this year.

“Because if it does, it’s on me.”