One week of the Mariners season is in the books, and I don’t yet sense a rampant outbreak of pennant fever.
It’s far too early to make rash judgments, of course. A 3-4 record could still be the pivot point for a surge, if you want to keep the faith. But there are already genuine concerns emerging in both hitting and pitching, not to mention health. The possible loss of James Paxton for the season is a huge blow.
And that has led to a renewed clamor to bring up the shining beacon of hope for the 2021 Seattle season: phenom-in-waiting Jarred Kelenic. Particularly with the hamstring injury that sent Jake Fraley to the injured list and leaves manager Scott Servais with the prospect of using reserves or converted infielders in left field until Kyle Lewis’ knee injury is healed.
On the surface, it’s a compelling argument to call up one of the organization’s two blue-chip outfield prospects, who has been clamoring for this opportunity since, well, last season.
Don’t hold your breath — unless you have the lung capacity to do so for at least eight more days.
You can moan all you want about “roster manipulation.” You can point to the Mariners’ .209 team batting average (12th out of 15 American League teams through Thursday’s games), the .320 slugging percentage (14th out of 15) and three home runs (tied for last) as evidence of the need for an offensive jolt.
And as the capper, you can gently recite the statistics of rookie center fielder Taylor Trammell, whose ascension to the opening-day lineup was the most heartwarming story of spring. But reality has struck with a wallop. Trammell is 2 for 19 with 13 strikeouts and too often has looked overmatched. His potential remains vast, but it appears the jump from Class AA to the majors — with a lost COVID-19 season in between — may have been premature.
That leaves two outfield spots for which Kelenic would be a logical candidate to flank Mitch Haniger, whose revival after a brutal injury recovery is near the top of the list of positive developments in the young season.
No matter. I’d wager a year of Ryan Divish’s salary the Mariners aren’t going to deviate from their plan for Kelenic — not when they’re so close to achieving a full extra season of club control. In other words, don’t expect them to even consider bringing him up until the requisite 16 days pass to eliminate the prospect of Kelenic getting a year of service time for 2021.
Of course, Kevin Mather’s blunt talk to the Bellevue Rotary Club, in which he stated the Mariners weren’t going to call up Kelenic under any circumstances last year and not for a month this year, put that issue front and center.
To quickly review, players become a free agent after six years of service time. Each MLB season consists of 187 days, but a player needs to spend just 172 days on either the active roster or injured list to qualify for a full year of service time. If the Mariners keep Kelenic down until the start of the next homestand, April 16 against Houston, they will not risk losing him to free agency until after the 2027 season. If they bring him up before then, and he stays up, he could become a free agent after the 2026 season.
Let’s put that in simpler terms: For the benefit of six games in a season that — let’s be real — is not likely to result in a playoff spot for the Mariners even if Kelenic turns out to immediately be the superstar everyone feels is within his capability, it simply doesn’t make sense, from their point of view, to burn an entire year of control. And fans who argue otherwise right now would probably be retroactively singing a different tune, loudly and angrily, if Kelenic became a star and walked after 2026.
Yes, that’s a cold and cynical calculation, one that frankly is not fair to Kelenic and blatantly flaunts the credo that teams should always give themselves the best chance to win. But that is also the system in place, as negotiated by the players union. It’s one that is easily exploitable, almost always without repercussion. Virtually every team in baseball would do — and has done — the same thing under similar circumstances.
The Mariners could ultimately make this a moot point by giving Kelenic a long-term extension that takes him well beyond the start of his free agency. They could have done that even if he started the year in the majors. The Kelenic camp has already rejected one such overture, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t eventually happen.
But the Mariners also have a valid point that Kelenic, who has a mere 21 games above Class A (all in 2019), could use more seasoning, regardless of the service-time ramifications. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, obviously, but the struggles of Trammell, who at 23 is older and more advanced in development than the 21-year-old Kelenic, show how hard the transition can be. The Mariners in past regimes have seen firsthand the dangers of rushing top prospects. When Kelenic does come up, they want it to be to stay.
Or perhaps Kelenic is a prodigy who will be great from the start. This is all further complicated, of course, by the ongoing disruption of player development by coronavirus. The start of the minor-league season was pushed back until May, eliminating the possibility of Kelenic getting at-bats in Tacoma in April as originally forecast.
He’s been playing in an informal “co-op league” of top prospects in Arizona, designed to get them all some playing time, but the league was curtailed by COVID issues. The normal minor-league exhibition games will start up soon, providing another opportunity for game action for prospects. But it has been far from the normal development situation — just as last year’s “alternate camp” wasn’t ideal.
It’s possible the Mariners will keep Kelenic down beyond the magic date for a call-up that’s free and clear of service-time implications. The justification would be to get him regular at-bats for a few weeks in a true Class AAA setting. The Rainiers are now scheduled to start the year May 6. Or they could call him up in the second half of April and get one of the most highly anticipated careers in recent Mariners history started. I’d be all for that.
But circumstances dictate it won’t happen any sooner. Once the Mariners made the decision not to start the season with Kelenic — a call made easier by the leg injury that shut him down for about 10 days in spring training — the die was cast. And in a longshot season for contention — their .209 team average is accented by a 5.71 staff earned-run average, fifth worst in MLB, and now likely to be without their No. 2 starter for the duration — it’s hard to argue.
That’s the case no matter how much empathy one has for Kelenic’s well-earned impatience, and how glaring is the Mariners’ current need for outfield help. This should be Exhibit A for why MLB and the union need to change the service-time rules that force teams to consider factors beyond what gives them the best chance to win in the present.
For the Mariners, the future is approaching rapidly. But maybe not fast enough for everybody.