Few things in sports are more exhilarating than the first glimpses of a transcendent talent. It can do strange voodoo on your brain — like make you ignore all the things you know to be true, and prudent.
That’s why the Mariners are on high alert with outfielder Jarred Kelenic, determined not to let their heart overrule their brain. As general manager Jerry Dipoto said Tuesday — and this won’t please the dreamers out there — “the long-term future of the organization is more important to us than scratching an itch with a player who is exciting the daylights out of all of us.”
Mind you, I’m not saying Kelenic is a transcendent talent. But I’m not saying he’s not. What I do know is that he’s the most legitimately exciting non-pitching prospect the Mariners have had since, well … no, I can’t say it. Let’s just go with, “a long time.”
That doesn’t mean he can’t miss (even though former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden, in rating Kelenic as the 13th-best prospect in the majors in The Athletic, called Kelenic “a can’t-miss future star”). The Mariners know all about can’t-miss future stars who missed.
You know the names all too well. Dustin Ackley. Jesus Montero. Justin Smoak. Mike Zunino. Jeff Clement. Et al.
Kelenic, though, is a different animal. He has athleticism and tools those guys lacked. Mostly, he’s got a swagger and innate confidence that was missing to various degrees with other touted prospects in Seattle.
Here, for instance, was Kelenic’s answer Monday when asked about the expectations he puts on himself.
“My expectations are so much higher than everyone else’s, and that’s really got me here. It’s got me to where I am, and it continues to push me day in and day out to be the best. … When you have goals and aspirations to reach, whether it’s the Hall of Fame or winning a World Series, I think you need goals that are above and beyond. Because then it gives you something to work for, day in and day out, and makes you dig that much deeper.”
Jarred Kelenic turns 21 on Thursday. He has a mere 92 plate appearances above Class A. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, this will be a 60-game mess of a season — if it even gets that far. The prudent thing for the Mariners to do, obviously, would be to send him to Tacoma with the rest of the taxi squad when the season starts July 24. Let him take his hacks in intrasquad games against some of their premier pitching prospects.
But then you see the at-bat Kelenic had last week in live BP when he displayed near-perfect torque with a short yet violent swing that put the ball deep in the bleachers; it yielded a video that had Mets fans weeping. And then you see the two home runs he hit Monday, marvels of plate discipline and raw power, and well, you can’t help but wonder if the Mariners should do the imprudent thing.
To put it in Russell Wilson terms, why not “let Jarred cook”? Why not bring him to the major leagues BECAUSE it is a 60-game mess of a season? Because what do they have to lose? Because if Kelenic is going to be penciled in as your starter by next year, why not let him get the baptism-under-fire phase of his development over with now?
I’m sure it sounds awfully tempting to a fan base starving for new stars. But there are logical reasons to resist that temptation.
Manager Scott Servais, who spent years working in player development, knows one of them, intellectually. Moving a player too fast, before he is ready, has shattered the confidence and set back the progress of many a prospect, Mariner or otherwise.
“We need to be smart here,’’ Servais said Tuesday. “Jarred has tremendous talent. There’s no question he’s going to be fun to watch in a Mariner uniform for a long time. But oftentimes you see players who get rushed through a little bit and you can really take a step backward.
“We don’t want that to happen to Jarred. We want to make sure the time is right for him and for us … and then go forward and never have to look back again. Oftentimes you see players just get rushed into the big leagues, and then they struggled and you’ve got to send them back down, and the back-and-forth train goes on. We don’t want to do that.”
In a perfect world, MLB would have held its All-Star Game in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Kelenic would have about 300 at-bats under his belt by now at Class AA and Class AAA and be poised for a second-half call-up. But with the COVID-19 shutdown wiping out that developmental time, the Mariners seem committed to their new plan for Kelenic: Letting him get as many of those at-bats as possible with the taxi squad in Tacoma.
Don’t expect any intrasquad superlatives these next two weeks to change that. If Kelenic were to start in the majors on opening day, it would put him in the big leagues faster than any player drafted out of high school in the past 30 years, besides Alex Rodriguez.
Most of the current stars out of high school, like Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, had in the range of 1,250 plate appearances in the minors before sticking in the majors. Kelenic has 751 plate appearances in pro ball. If the Mariners can get him 250 or so in some form in Tacoma this summer and fall, it would bring him closer to that number, and, they believe, set him up better for success than rushing him up now.
“We think he’s one of the premier prospects in the game,” Dipoto said. “We love the player, we love the ability. I know the general expectation of a fan base, or even the players themselves is, ‘I’m good enough to play here.’ I would expect every player to feel that way, and I’d expect the fans to urge to bring the player up.
“But we’re committed to doing what we can to preserve the best outcome long term for both Jarred Kelenic and the Mariners.”
There are also service-time ramifications that would be naive to ignore. If Kelenic were to play a full season in the majors this year and never return to the minors, he would be eligible for free agency after the 2025 season, at age 25. If he stays down this year and at the beginning of next year (for about three weeks or perhaps longer), the Mariners would control him through the 2027 season, when he hits his prime at age 27. Those two extra seasons would be huge if Kelenic becomes the player he is hinting of being — especially with the Mariners realistically aiming to coalesce all their young talent into legitimate contention in 2022.
Someone asked Kelenic on Monday if he could stay patient if the Mariners held him back. He gave a little snort of a laugh, and then paused for a long time. You could almost see the devil on one shoulder urging a brash answer, and an angel on the other, imploring, “Don’t do it!” And you could almost hear Crash Davis advising him how to handle questions like this, a la Nuke LaLoosh. Finally, Kelenic spoke.
“You know, I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
Spoken like a seasoned veteran. It looks like Kelenic — who beat the shift with an opposite-field single in Tuesday’s scrimmage, just another tease of his ability — will be doing his playing one day at a time in Tacoma this summer.
Once you scrape away the yearning — and impatience — for the next big thing, it’s the right decision. The prudent decision.
By the way, I may recycle this column next year for Julio Rodriguez.