The road back to T-Mobile Park and the Mariners doesn’t start in the parking lot of Cheney Stadium and doesn’t include the soul-sucking traffic on Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Sodo.
For Jarred Kelenic, it started in the batting cage on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the Tacoma Rainiers were set to play the finale of a six-game series/homestand vs. the Salt Lake Bees.
Twenty-seven days after what he expected to be his last game with the Rainiers this season, Kelenic returns as a humbled but still uber-talented prospect who not only failed to play and produce anywhere close to his massive potential, but struggled to the point where the Mariners had no choice but to send him back down for a reset.
After being used a pinch-runner in Anaheim in the Mariners’ win over the Angels, Kelenic met with manager Scott Servais and was informed he was being optioned back to Tacoma.
“He didn’t say a whole lot,” Servais said before Tuesday’s game in Detroit. “We talked for about 10 minutes. And I think he understands where it’s at and where he’s at. That doesn’t mean that he agreed with the decision. Nobody likes to hear that kind of news. But it was a good conversation.”
Kelenic didn’t have much to say about the discussion and decision.
“It is what it is,” Kelenic said, repeating one of his and baseball’s oft-used phrases. “It’s part of the game. Right now, my mindset has kind of shifted to I’m just excited to help this team win.”
Kelenic needs to shift his mindset away from the struggles of the last few weeks and all that went wrong in his time at the MLB level.
“When you first get called up, there’s a lot of emotions, and there’s just a lot of things that I was trying to learn very quickly,” he said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way I planned or as anybody really planned. I’m not going to let it ruin me. I know what I’m capable of doing. I know everyone else knows what I’m capable of doing. So I try to look at it as — it is what it is. It was a fluke and I’ll come down here, get where I need to be and I’ll be back.”
Kelenic didn’t get a hit, going 0-for-3, in the Rainiers’ 7-3 win over Salt Lake. But he did have a solid sacrifice fly to drive in a run in his second plate appearance.
He had a .096/.185/.193 slash line with just eight hits in 92 plate appearances with eight walks and 26 strikeouts when he was sent down.
Rated as the Mariners’ top prospect by MLB.com and No. 4 prospect in all of baseball coming into the season, his expected debut was controversial based on claims of service time manipulation and anticipated given his obvious talent and potential. After going hitless in his MLB debut on May 13 at T-Mobile Park, Kelenic 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 people expected and more. And it wasn’t replicated.
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.
That stretch included Kelenic going hitless in his last 39 at-bats (44 plate appearances).
As a hitting prodigy, he hadn’t experienced such struggles or a significant slump at any level of baseball. Consistent production at the plate was his carrying tool.
“Never,” he said. “That wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. Obviously, it’s frustrating all throughout the 39 at-bats.”
It was during that slump where Kelenic admittedly lost his identity as a hitter. The disciplined and mature approach that he’d cultivated over the years, the advanced knowledge of the strike zone and the understanding of process vs. results slowly dissipated with each hitless plate appearance. He started chasing hits, trying to force or will the result rather than trusting that if he maintained a solid approach they would come.
“I think that, like anybody, when I went through it and I broke it down to where I was swinging the bat well early and then I started to get super unlucky and that turned into me pressing and trying to get those hits,” he said. “Nobody plays good when they are pressing. Coming down here, taking a step back, I don’t have anything to press about — just get back to who I am and get back.”
Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto could see the failures were leading to more frustration from Kelenic. He would carry the weight of all those failed at-bats into the next one.
During a media session early Tuesday morning, Dipoto did feel like Kelenic was a victim of not getting borderline calls on the edges of the strike zone, which compounded issues.
Neither he nor Kelenic felt like there was some flaw in the swing or weakness that was being exploited.
“I have zero doubt,” Kelenic said. “There were a lot of times where the calls, if they were 50-50, they were not going to go my way. But that’s baseball. I can’t just say that the reason I hit .100 was because of bad calls and bad luck. That’s not it. At the end of the day, I didn’t execute, and I know I will, so I’m not really worried about that.”
Still, it became clear in the past week that something had to change. There was nothing positive coming from the situation.
“We’d had a lot of internal discussions on what was the best plan of action for him,” Servais said. “And I’ve often said it’s always about the player and what was best for Jarred and where he’s at in his career. I think everybody agreed that it was best to kind of unplug from what’s happening in the big leagues and give him a chance to kind of take a deep breath, get things going in a positive way again in Tacoma.”
After arriving back in Seattle late Sunday evening, Kelenic took Monday off to rest and reflect to be ready for Tuesday in Tacoma. Players have three days to report once they’ve been optioned to the minor leagues. He took one “much needed” day to recharge.
Kelenic had long conversations with his parents and girlfriend about what was happening. His phone was flooded with messages offering supportive and encouraging words via text or social media.
“They’ve been super, super supportive throughout this entire thing because obviously it’s not easy,” he said. “Even the fans have been really supportive. I’ve gotten a lot of messages and people commenting on a lot of my stuff, saying things like we know what you’re capable of doing, and this has nothing to do with your career like coming to an end or anything.”
There was also time for introspection, analyzing what had transpired to put him in the place and what it would take for it to never happen again.
“I spent a lot of time in my apartment just thinking about it,” he said. “It’s a blessing in disguise. I’ve learned already a ton from it, and I’m excited to step back and go to work here.”
It’s certainly something the Mariners hope for as well.
“We love his talent, his skill set, how he’s wired, and what he’s going to do for us here long term with the Mariners,” Servais said. “But a lot of young players, they do need to take a step back once in a while. And I think he’ll be better for it in the long run.”