Jarred Kelenic refuses to make this easy for the Mariners.
And for an organization that has struggled in the past to develop high-level position-player prospects into something more than flawed big-league players, what-might-have-beens or even regretful mistakes, that’s a not a bad thing.
So the amended development plan coming into this shortened 2020 season was to put the ultra-talented Kelenic on the 60-player invited list for this summer camp. He was then going to work out daily and participate in intrasquad games and daily workouts with the other non-active-roster players in Tacoma, all in preparation for competing for a spot on the opening day roster in 2021. Instead, Kelenic seems intent on making the Mariners consider him for this season’s 30-man opening-day roster.
After arriving in Seattle noticeably more muscular from hours of weight training during the shutdown, and mashing balls in early workouts, including a majestic blast off the Hit It Here Cafe in live batting practice, he provided a tantalizing example of his obvious big-league talent and untapped potential at the plate.
Kelenic blasted a pair of solo home runs to lead the Seattle “Steelheads” to a 5-0 victory over the Seattle “Pilots” on a mostly cloudless Monday afternoon in an intrasquad game.
“There’s nothing better than feeling that loud crack of the bat,” he said. “Anytime you can put the ball over to help your team out, it is awesome. Not even just for me, though. Everyone knows what K-Lew (Kyle Lewis) is doing. Granted, he didn’t hit a home run today, but he’s got five other ones in the bag that he’s hit in intrasquad and in live pitching. But there’s nothing that beats that sound.”
And both of the homers produced those unmistakable loud cracks that cut through the piped-in crowd noise.
Kelenic’s first at-bat was a flyout to left on a misplaced change-up from Taijuan Walker, who admitted he got away with a mistake pitch that the youngster usually wouldn’t miss.
But in his second at-bat against lefty Nestor Cortes, the lefty-swinging Kelenic turned on a fastball, unleashing a short, quick and frighteningly violent stroke that sent the ball through the wind blowing in toward home and into T-Mobile Park right-field seats.
“I was looking for something soft, and I didn’t think that his fastball was gonna beat me,” he said. “I wanted to stay through the left side of the field with it. I was just going to take the approach of a fastball that I was just going to react to it, especially if it was in. And that’s kind of just what happened. I took a first-pitch curveball that I thought was a ball. And then the next pitch was the fastball that I reacted on and got the head out and smell ya later.”
That “smell ya later” was a favorite saying of former Mariners slugging outfielder Jay Buhner. And Kelenic has that sort of confidence, but all the tools to be a much more complete hitter than Buhner, who is in the organization’s Hall of Fame.
His next at-bat against right-hander reliever Carl Edwards Jr. featured a similar plan and result.
“Kind of the same thing, I was looking soft late in the bat,” he said. “I wanted to see him out over the plate because he has some natural cut on his fastball. The curveball, I was just going to see if it was going to pop. I didn’t think he’d come back to (the fastball), but he did and I just reacted.”
In his fourth at-bat, facing Yohan Ramirez and his high-90s fastballs with little command or control, Kelenic drew a four-pitch walk.
“Right now it’s feeling really, really good,” he said. “I feel like I’m on everything and seeing the ball well. But you know at the end of the day, baseball is a funny game. You go through days where you can’t hit a beach ball if they threw it up there. And then there’s some days where the ball looks as big as a beach ball, and you’re hitting everything.”
The power display comes from an intense offseason regimen of diet and weight lifting that was implemented during the shutdown. Kelenic arrived in spring training looking and feeling stronger. He arrived at summer camp looking ripped with about 10 to 15 pounds of muscle added to his frame.
“I got a lot bigger,” he said. “My routine stayed the same when I went back home because of the facilities that I have back home. I’m sure everyone here can relate. You don’t have a lot to do during quarantine. So, I wake up every morning and I go hit. And then I just go in the gym and I just work out like crazy. At the same time, with the flexibility that I have with the facilities, I could do my sprinting stuff, so it wasn’t like I was getting too bulky. I came in stronger for summer camp than I did spring training, which was something I take pride in.”
He has a basic approach to this atypical situation and season.
“I come to the field, I play baseball and work out,” he said. “And then I go home, back to my hotel room, and I either FaceTime with my girlfriend or my parents and then play video games. My dad always told me that the more simple you can make life, the happier and better you’re going to be. And right now, I can’t complain, it’s pretty simple.”
It’s not complicated to envision Kelenic mashing homers under the lights of T-Mobile, wearing the gleaming white home uniforms in the near future. But what if the future is now?
General manager Jerry Dipoto has often said to reporters and on the radio since, even before the season was sidetracked by COVID-19, that they can’t let their eyes and emotions influence the purposeful and committed plan of their stepback rebuild.
Past front offices rushed players like Mike Zunino to the big leagues, took developmental shortcuts with Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak or lacked clear plans for players like Chris Taylor, Brad Miller and Ketel Marte, this regime under Dipoto has been more patient and pragmatic with prospects. To be fair, they didn’t have many until they started tearing apart the big-league roster after the 2018 season.
The Mariners haven’t had a prospect this young and moving up this quickly since the days of Ken Griffey Jr.
While he will never say it publicly, because he knows it’s one of those many unwritten rules in baseball that he must follows, the self-assured Kelenic believes he should be on the opening-day roster on July 24 when the Mariners face the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
And he’s got about two weeks to make the Mariners believe it too.