TACOMA — As Jarred Kelenic walked to the plate for his first at-bat at Cheney Stadium, there was no walk-up music blasting. There were no fans to cheer with excitement for seeing their prized prospect make his debut at the Class AAA level. And there wasn’t a real opposing team looking to shut him down.
Welcome to the Mariners’ alternate training site, where those players remaining from the team’s 60-player roster invited to summer camp — the ones not on the active roster — will spend their days working out and playing intrasquad games.
Some will possibly earn a call-up to help the Mariners in this shortened season, while others, such as Kelenic, who likely won’t be called up, will try to salvage some development in an otherwise lost season in which minor-league baseball has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The basic template is we’ll play three or four days a week,” said Andy McKay, the Mariners director of player development, via Zoom video-conference call. “And obviously, that’ll get stretched as we go when the starting pitchers start getting built up. When we get all the pitching built up, you’re going to probably get closer to four games a week, maybe even pushing five as the starters get stretched into 5-6-7 innings.”
Given the roster’s scarcity of position players, they’ve had to use coaches Kris Negron and Louis Boyd in the field — and sometimes just leave an outfield spot vacant.
“But guys (the position players they do have) are getting six and seven at bats a day, so we think we can comfortably get them into that 175 at-bats area over the 10 weeks,” McKay said.
The lack of fanfare didn’t matter to the hypercompetitive Kelenic, who tries to approach every at-bat the same regardless of the situation. In his first at-bat of the first intrasquad game in Tacoma, facing right-hander and former Class AA Arkansas teammate Ljay Newsome, Kelenic crushed a fastball over the wall in deep right-center. It wasn’t the first time Newsome had been a victim of Kelenic’s power. A similar result happened during live batting practice at T-Mobile Park, where Kelenic took a Newsome fastball off the Hit It Here Café sign in right field.
“It’s the same game,” Kelenic said, also via Zoom. “Now granted, we don’t have a left fielder sometimes, but I never looked at the left fielder anyway. For me it’s just me and the pitcher. That’s who I’m competing against, and the same mentality I’ve always had.”
The homer was a prelude to a monster day for Kelenic, who had eight plate appearances because of the holes in the roster. In three more plate appearances against Newsome, he added another crisp single while making a pair of outs. Later, in his fourth plate appearance, facing reliever Joey Gerber, Kelenic hammered another homer — a moonshot over the wall in right — a souvenir for a few kids lingering behind the wall. In his final at-bat, Kelenic tripled to left off right-hander Sam Delaplane. Two homers, a triple and a single on the day.
“I got a couple of good pitches to hit, and did some damage on them,” he said. “I got myself in a good hitter’s count and set myself up.”
The Mariners love Kelenic’s approach and intensity.
“He does what he’s always done, which is going and giving you great at-bats,” McKay said. “He really knows how to control the strike zone and impacts the baseball. He’s got a competitive nature about him that, whether it’s in T-Mobile or coming down here for the first time in an environment like this, it doesn’t really matter. He’s competing against the pitcher. He takes every at-bat like it’s the last one he’ll have. It was a lot of fun to watch him do that today.”
In a normal minor-league season, Kelenic likely would’ve been promoted from Arkansas to Tacoma in mid-July, a typical progression for a player that just turned 21 and had less than 100 plate appearances above Class A coming into the season.
But his showing at summer camp, including two homers in an intrasquad game, had Kelenic and many fans thinking about him getting a spot on the Mariners’ opening-day roster.
The Mariners cited Kelenic’s lack of games and proper development as a main reason to keep him in Tacoma. Then there are the service-time ramifications, which would have allowed Kelenic to become a free agent after the 2025 season — instead, he can become a free agent after the 2027 season if he stays in the minors this year and the beginning of next year (for about three weeks or perhaps longer).
Kelenic obviously is disappointed with the Mariners’ decision.
“I’m only going to comment on how I’m handling it,” he said. “I will say that every single day I’m going out and trying to compete and have fun with the guys. That’s not a cliché answer, but it may sound like one. It’s 100% what I’m trying to do. I understand the circumstances, but for me, I’m just going to go out there and compete every single pitch.”
The Mariners don’t want to temper Kelenic’s elevated expectations. How do they think he’s handled it?
“It’s a bit of torture, isn’t it?” McKay said. “You take your wildest dream and you put it like 15 minutes up the road. He’s been great and I think so far it’s gone exactly how it should go, which is we had a plan in place for him in terms of the at-bats we wanted in the minor leagues, the goals we wanted him to meet. And he’s got his own separate set of goals. But the fact he’s playing great creates this type of conversation. If he wasn’t playing the way he is, you wouldn’t be asking that question.”
The Mariners’ front office understands any frustration and impatience from Kelenic, but believe they are making the correct and logical decision.
“I think it’s working out very well,” McKay said. “We’re sticking to our plan, and he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s maintaining his focus, his competitiveness, and he absolutely should want to be in Seattle. I don’t hold that against him at all.”
As advanced as Kelenic is, the Mariners plan to provide him with more challenges. They’ll have him face a lot of left-handed pitching, play center field and work on his base running with a goal of 30 stolen bases in a big-league season. They’ll also set off-field goals.
“I think ultimately our biggest challenge right now is to get him to lead in the clubhouse,” McKay said. “To take his competitive fire, and to be able to bring it to his teammates into a team competitive fire, not just his fire for his career and his at-bats, but into our team and organization. He’s aware of that. We’ve had these conversations. He knows our expectations and our goals for him. And he’s on board with trying to do those things. So, so far so good.”
With the players sticking to a routine of hotel-ballpark-hotel, Kelenic knows he can stay focused and reach that goal.
“My challenge for myself is get to know this group of guys,” he said. “Last year was kind of a challenge, I went through three different levels, and never really got to build relationships with the guys just because I was in and out all the time. I know that I’m going to be here the entire time. I get to build a relationship with these guys, get to know what they like and don’t like, and help try to make them better because they’re going to make me better.
“That’s only going to help us down the road. When it comes down to Game 5 or Game 7 in the World Series, and you’ve got a buddy on the mound that you’ve grinded back in Tacoma with two years prior, you know you’re going to go to war for him no matter what. And just having that respect, I think, is huge.”