Even with Jarred Kelenic’s obvious talent and the Mariners’ belief that his overall approach at the plate would eventually break him out of a miserable slump, the Mariners simply couldn’t continue to keep Kelenic in the everyday lineup or even on the major-league roster and let him struggle his way to infamy.
On Monday afternoon, the team announced the talented outfielder had been optioned to Class AAA Tacoma after Sunday’s game against the Angels in Anaheim, California.
He is expected to be in the Rainiers lineup for Tuesday’s game.
Kelenic was batting .096 with the Mariners, with just eight hits in 92 plate appearances with eight walks and 26 strikeouts, and he was mired in an 0-for-39 stretch (44 plate appearances) that included five walks and 17 strikeouts.
The MLB record for longest hitless streak by a position player belongs to former Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who went hitless in 54 at-bats (62 plate appearances) over the end of the 2018 season and the start of the 2019 season.
Infielder Shed Long Jr. was reinstated from the 60-day injured list and will take Kelenic’s place on the active roster. To make room for Long on the 40-man roster, Sam Haggerty was transferred to the 60-day injured list.
After going hitless in his much-anticipated MLB debut on May 13 at T-Mobile Park, Kelenic, who was rated as the Mariners top prospect by MLB.com and No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, blasted a solo home run for his first MLB hit in the following game, earning a curtain call from Mariners fans. He also added two doubles. It was everything Mariners fans had been waiting and clamoring for from the precocious 21-year-old.
But the production waned as pitchers started to attack him on the hands with fastballs and teams loaded up with left-handed pitchers to face him.
Over the next 21 games, he posted a .067/.167/.107 slash line that included just five hits in 84 plate appearances, one homer, three RBI, eight walks and 24 strikeouts.
Initially, the Mariners felt confident that the number of hard hit balls and his unusually low batting average on balls in play — around .120 — indicated that Kelenic was a victim of bad luck, and that it would change.
But the swings and misses and strikeouts began to climb with each hitless plate appearance. And his anger and explosive reactions after those at-bats also became an indicator of a young player struggling to manage failure.
It’s logical to wonder if the Mariners were pressured into calling up Kelenic to the big-league level somewhat prematurely after seeming so steadfast in the belief that he needed development at the minor-league level during spring training.
But with the team’s offense production ranking as one of the worst in baseball and rookie outfielder Taylor Trammell, who made the opening day roster over Kelenic, struggling to hit MLB pitching, they made the decision to bring him up after his first six games at Class AAA.
“I have to say the first six games were fairly convincing,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said when he was called up. “It was pretty loud. This was never about a lack of belief in what Jarred would do, it was always about making sure that we were building a foundation for success — against left-handers, seeing upper-level pitching, guys who pitch backward when you’re behind in the count. And I don’t know if he’s seen enough of that, but I do know that it’s been loud enough.”
When the Mariners decided not to put Kelenic on the MLB roster in the shortened 2020 season, opting to play utility infielders in the outfield, his representatives complained that the organization was manipulating his service time and trying to delay his free agency.
Those claims were given some validity when former Mariners president and CEO Kevin Mather spoke to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club in February and admitted as much while also discussing a contract extension that was offered and declined by Kelenic.
During the 2020 season and even after Mather’s comments in the spring, Dipoto justified the decision of not placing Kelenic on the opening-day roster as one of player development and lack of time spent at the Class AA level or above.
Kelenic had just 92 plate appearances with Class AA Arkansas in 2019 and didn’t play in anything but intrasquad games in 2020 after minor-league baseball was shut down because of COVID-19. When asked if Kelenic was ready for his call-up, Dipoto was optimistic.
“I don’t know if he’s big-league ready today and I don’t know if he was big league ready a month ago,” Dipoto said about the call-up. “That’s not the way development works. We believe he’s ready. Jarred Kelenic’s going to be a good hitter in this league. I hope that starts today. But minimally, I know that to be true. His process and his talent are just too good and he’s done what we asked him to do at every step. He’s being rewarded with the best thing we can give him, which is an opportunity in the big leagues to show it.”
Kelenic isn’t the first touted prospect to be sent down after struggling at the MLB level in his initial call-up.
Mike Trout is an oft-mentioned example. In 2011, at age 19, he was called up to the Angels in mid-July and lasted only 14 games, posting a .163/.213/.279 slash line with two doubles, a homer, six RBI, three walks and 10 strikeouts, before being sent down. He was called up later in the season and posted a .250/.318/.450 slash line with four doubles, four homers, 10 RBI, six walks and 20 strikeouts in 26 games.