The day belonged to Jarred Kelenic.
When it comes to the buzz and hype surrounding the bevy of prospects in the Mariners’ organization, there aren’t many days that don’t belong to the sweet-swinging kid from Wisconsin.
On Wednesday, the scheduled media sessions for the Mariners’ Virtual Baseball Bash centered around a loaded farm system that is ranked in the top five in baseball.
Andy McKay, the director of player development, was in the leadoff spot and spoke on a variety of topics, including the three prospects that would follow in the Zoom media sessions — top pitching prospects and former first-round picks Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, with Kelenic fittingly in the clean-up position.
Kelenic was reserved and controlled in his answers. He didn’t offer up any comments that generated instant social media or meme gold like “the next pitch was the fastball that I reacted on and got the head out and smell ya later.”
He also didn’t allow his emotions, specifically any frustration or anger about his delayed path to the big leagues, define those controlled answers.
That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about the frustration of feeling he deserved to be in the big leagues, or forgiven the Mariners for what could be construed by many, including his representatives at Klutch Sports Management, as obvious service-time manipulation.
By keeping Kelenic at the alternate training site for the entire 2020 season and waiting until late May to call him up in 2021, the Mariners will have delayed his eligibility for free agency by two years to 2027.
Kelenic and his representatives thought he deserved to make the opening day roster coming out of last July’s summer camp. When that didn’t happen, they wanted an eventual call-up since Seattle was starting utility infielders and waiver claim Philip Ervin in the corner outfield spots.
But baseball sources indicated that the Mariners’ front office informed Kelenic after summer camp ended that he wouldn’t be called up in 2020 under any circumstances, which made his frustration understandable.
“If you were to ask me last year if I felt that I was ready to be in the big leagues, I would have told you, yes,” he said. “But I would’ve told you I was ready two years ago. So it’s kind of a moot point.”
It is still relevant to Kelenic’s current situation since it’s very likely he won’t make the opening day roster. From a business and baseball standpoint, the Mariners should consider the service time ramifications and delay his debut. The extra year of Kelenic at age 27 — a player’s prime — could be beyond valuable to the team if its “waves” of prospects crest in the coming years.
Asked where Kelenic would or should start the 2021 season, McKay was diplomatic.
“I don’t have an answer to that right now,” he said. “He finished ’19 at the Double-A level and in a very short period of time. Now we have to assess what his experience in 2020 was the equivalent to. I think anything from Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues is a realistic conversation for parts of 2021. I think it will reveal itself in spring training.”
Seattle can claim developmental needs, using the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season and Kelenic’s brief time at the Double-A level in 2019 as the impetus for starting him with Triple-A Tacoma.
“My focus with Jarred has always been that I think we all know where this is headed,” McKay said. “It’s about being where his feet are and embracing his grass and finding a way to get better wherever he is. And I think he’s done that.”
McKay mentioned some research the Mariners have done on top MLB position players drafted out of high school and their path to the big leagues, which general manager Jerry Dipoto has referenced previously. The research shows that those players, including Mike Trout and Christian Yelich, amassed around 1,000 to 1,200 plate appearances in the minor leagues (Kelenic has 791) and at least 250 to 300 plate appearances above the Class AA level (Kelenic has 92).
Still, the Mariners have a glaring hole in left field in their projected everyday lineup and there is nobody on the current 40-man roster with more talent or potential for success in handling it than Kelenic.
Obviously, the Mariners can’t and would never speak openly about controlling Kelenic’s MLB service time and any benefits it might provide, but their implied motive can’t be avoided.
Kelenic was asked specifically if he was concerned that the service time aspect was delaying his timetable to the big leagues.
He paused for a few seconds to prepare the answer to a question he knew would be asked.
“Um, I’m just gonna try to go out and play as hard as I can,” he said. “It’s out of my control. So whatever happens, happens. I know that’s a cliché answer, but it kind of applies to anything.”
One thing that he can control is his offseason preparation. After getting his first invite to MLB spring training in 2020, he used the time during baseball’s COVID shutdown to get stronger. He arrived at summer camp noticeably more muscular in his upper and lower body. He credited his power displays in summer camp to that work.
“I can tell you that I’m super, super strong,” he said. “I’ve kind of had the same mentality in every offseason. I’m a big believer in ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ So, I feel like every year I’ve come into spring training ready to go. I’m just trying to do the same stuff that I’ve been doing.”
Regardless of where he starts the 2021 season, it’s likely — and his expectation — he will finish it on the big league team as an everyday player. Until then, he has a simple plan that he used in the less than ideal situation at the alternate training site in Tacoma.
“I try to be better than I was the day before,” he said. “I think it’s that simple. It’s not even just being on the field. Whether it was in the weight room trying to get stronger and trying to lift more weight than I did the day before, whether it was talking to a different player and getting to know them, it was a lot of different things. But the focal point was to be better than I was the day before.”