TACOMA — As Mikal Thomsen, the owner of the Tacoma Rainiers, offered up a pregame speech to the first fans — an announced crowd of 2,851 — to return to Cheney Stadium for a baseball game since Sept. 2, 2019, he welcomed them back and thanked them for their patience and enduring the cancellation of the 2020 season and a hiatus that has felt longer than 612 days.
He also mentioned the talent on this team’s opening-day roster and said something that wasn’t meant to be prophetic, but perhaps a friendly warning for fans who prefer to attend Rainiers games — see them while you can.
“Some of these guys probably won’t be here for too long,” he said Thursday.
Thomsen didn’t mention Jarred Kelenic or Logan Gilbert or Cal Raleigh by name. He didn’t need to. Fans knew exactly who he was talking about.
And of that trio, the estimated time of arrival of Kelenic to the big leagues and the injection of his youthful energy, extreme self-confidence, obvious talent and tantalizing potential at the plate into the lethargy that is the Mariners’ lineup will be discussed, debated and demanded for the foreseeable future.
Of course, Kelenic being Kelenic, he ratcheted up that growing impatience from the Mariners’ fan base as only he can, hitting a pair of solo homers in his first game at the Triple-A level. But it wasn’t enough for the win as the Rainiers lost 7-6 to the El Paso Chihuahuas in 12 innings.
“That’s what I missed the most being out there in front of fans and just competing,” Kelenic said. “I missed that more than anything. And it was a hell of a game tonight, regardless of the outcome.”
Batting leadoff for the Rainiers, Kelenic went hitless in his first two plate appearances. He swung at the very first pitch thrown by El Paso starter Daniel Camarena, getting jammed and hitting a soft groundout to third base.
“In that first at-bat, I was going up hacking just to get the jitters out,” he said. “Like you said, it’s been 600 days. We’ve been waiting for a while.”
In his second at-bat, he showed more patience, working a 2-0 count. But the hitter’s count didn’t yield a desired result — just a soft line drive to right field.
“After that I got dialed back in. I haven’t faced a live pitcher in like a week or so,” Kelenic said “So I knew that my timing was probably going to be a little bit shaky. And I even said to Dan Wilson in the dugout after that second at-bat, I took a great swing on a pitch and just got jammed a little bit hit. I said, ‘He better look out because I’m on it now.'”
Indeed, he offered another example of his advanced approach and hitting aptitude. Kelenic worked another 2-0 count his third at-bat, facing another lefty in Nick Ramirez. Kelenic shrugged off a 2-0 curveball off the plate that was supposed to get him to chase in what is typically a fastball count at the lower levels. But given the green light to swing on 3-0, Kelenic got that fastball he’d been waiting to attack.
The pitch stayed belt-high in the strike zone and Kelenic turned it into a vapor trail, sending a line drive over the wall in right field. El Paso right fielder Patrick Kivlehan, a one-time Mariners prospect, turned, took a cursory step and watched the ball leave the park. It was hit way too hard to even consider making a play on it.
The only thing faster than the exit velocity on Kelenic’s homer was how fast he circled the bases, which was more sprint than trot. He let out a fist pump and scream after rounding third base and left a few bruises and sore hands on his teammates as he received celebratory high fives and fist bumps.
“I was pumped up, just to be out there with the fans and everything,” he said. “And I felt like we were a little bit slow with the bats to start the game. I was just trying to get the guys hyped up even more, because I knew one wasn’t going to be enough.”
His second homer was even more impressive. Facing right-hander Mason Thompson, Kelenic took a 97-mph fastball for a first-pitch strike and refused to chase a curveball for a ball. Thompson came back with an off-speed pitch on 1-1 and Kelenic sat on it, unleashing a towering moonshot well over the wall in right field and into the bushes beyond the road to the parking lot.
“It was a slider and it just kind of hung over the plate,” Kelenic said. “And the rest was history.”
In the short amount of time since Kelenic was acquired from the Mets in the infamous trade that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to New York, he’s shown the ability to exceed expectations with an unflinching belief in his ability and his work ethic. Setting limitations seems only to motivate him.
When will the Mariners finally give fans what they want and call him up?
No, it won’t be tomorrow despite the two-homer night.
Early on Thursday, Jon Paul Morosi, an analyst/reporter for MLB Network tweeted: “#Mariners star prospect Jarred Kelenic is likely to make his @MLB debut later this month, as I said on @MLBNetwork.”
There were 24 days left in the month at the time of the tweet and the use of “likely,” didn’t advance the information beyond what has already been known. The long-held belief since spring training is that Kelenic would debut no later than June 1 if he performed to expectations and perhaps earlier if he dominated. The much-discussed service-time threshold to gain an extra year of club control passed in mid-April with Kelenic still at minor league spring training.
The tweet was mentioned to Dipoto during his Thursday morning radio show on ESPN 710.
“We’re getting closer and closer, and I will say it’s some part because we feel like he is making progress, and some part because it’s time to take a look at him. That’s coming sooner than later. It’s also some part in that it might add a spark to our offense if we give him that opportunity. But we’re not ready to go there yet. We want to see him start the season in Triple-A. We’ll take it day by day, we’ve not fixed a date where we’re going to tap into Jared and give him that opportunity. But we are getting closer and closer.”
Dipoto maintained his sense of humor about a subject that hasn’t always been enjoyable this spring with now former team president Kevin Mather making comments to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club that were construed as a plan to manipulate Kelenic’s service time.
“Apparently, JP (Morosi) knows a little bit more than I know about what we’re going to do with our roster,” Dipoto said. “But we are getting to the point in that 30-40 game window that I’ve discussed where we are going to make decisions about what to do with our roster and among them is what we do moving forward with Jarred Kelenic.”
Usually when teams call up top prospects to the big leagues, they prefer to do it on a homestand. It’s a way to showcase the event, generate increased fan interest and, of course, add to ticket sales. But with COVID-19 protocols and the intake process, it would actually be easier for the Mariners to call-up Kelenic during a homestand. Seattle does have a seven-game homestand starting on May 27 with a four-game series vs. the Rangers followed by a three-game series vs. the A’s. That seems like a logical time.
Dipoto acknowledging the possibility of Kelenic providing a spark to what is an impotent offense and one of the worst in baseball might expedite the timeline out of necessity.
After getting no hits in 27 at-bats vs. lefty John Means on Wednesday afternoon, the Mariners’ team batting average dropped to .201. That is the worst of all 30 teams. Seattle fell below the Tigers, who came into Thursday hitting a robust .202. With the Mariners not playing and Detroit getting 14 hits in 43 at-bats in an extra-innings loss to the Red Sox, Detroit raised its team batting average to .207. Seattle’s .267 on-base percentage isn’t the worst in MLB — it’s 29th out of 30 teams along with its .639 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The new analytics don’t paint a much better picture. Per Statcast, the Mariners have put 708 balls in play this season. Of those balls in play, they’ve had an average exit velocity of 87.9 mph, which is tied for the lowest in baseball with the Pirates and Rockies. The “hard-hit rate” of balls with exit velocities of 95 mph or higher is just 37.1 percent — the fourth lowest in MLB. The Mariners have swung and missed on 29.7 percent of the pitches they’ve seen this season (fourth highest) and have struck out in 27.1 percent of their at-bats (fifth highest).
They aren’t hitting the ball often and when they do, they aren’t hitting it hard. It’s why their expected batting average based on balls in play is just .227 — the second lowest in MLB.
Of course, Kelenic coming up won’t fix any of this alone. And it would be unfair to expect a player at age 21 with minimal minor league experience to do so. This is a team issue. But his presence does remove one nonproducing hitter from the lineup. The lingering fear is that he might struggle in the same way that Evan White and Taylor Trammell have this season. Yes, he is younger and has less experience than both of them, but he’s also got a much better approach and refined swing.
When Kelenic gets called up, there will be much rejoicing in Mariners nation. Will he fix the Mariners? No. But he will make them better.
His focus now turns to Friday’s game where lefty Mackenzie Gore, the No. 6 overall prospect in all of baseball per MLB Pipeline, will get the start for El Paso. It’s a challenge Kelenic, who is the No. 4 overall prospect on the list, relishes.
“In order to be the best, you’ve got to compete against the best,” Kelenic said. “We’ve got Logan (Gilbert) starting. I think it’s gonna be a good matchup tomorrow.”