As part of an ongoing series, Stepping Forward: Path to 2021, The Seattle Times is tracking a handful of the top prospects — among them, Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Evan White and Kyle Lewis — whom the Mariners have identified as key figures in their “step-back” plan on their paths to the major leagues.

For Jarred Kelenic, the highlights of a rare off day in Charleston, West Virginia, on Tuesday included:

  • Sleeping in until 11 a.m.
  • A haircut.
  • Grocery shopping.
  • Epsom salt bath.
  • And a homemade dinner for one.

Kelenic doesn’t have to cook for himself often, but the 19-year-old has taken to a recipe for an open-faced burger, baked at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes.

“It’s pretty good,” he said. “After you do it a couple times, you start to pick up on some stuff.”

Kelenic, one of the top outfield prospects in minor-league baseball, realized he had to learn some other new things soon after joining the Class A West Virginia Power last month to begin his first season in the Mariners’ system.

Jarred Kelenic is looking like the gem of Seattle's 'step back'

After a strong spring training, Kelenic struggled in his first week with West Virginia, managing just two hits in his first 25 at-bats. Those struggles were, in hindsight, a blessing.

“Absolutely,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The best part of failing is it’s always a learning opportunity. That’s true for baseball or just anything in your daily life.”

And since then, Kelenic has been everything the Mariners could have hoped for when they acquired him in the winter blockbuster that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the New York Mets.

Kelenic’s turnaround came on April 11, in the Power’s first home game. He spent extra time that afternoon working with the team’s hitting coach, Eric Farris, and hitting against a pitching machine on the field.

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That night he went 3 for 4 with a double, a walk and his first two RBI of the season. He has hit safely in 19 of the past 21 games, batting .402 with 10 doubles, six home runs and five steals in those 21 games.

He ranks in the South Atlantic League’s top 10 in just about every offensive category. He is the third in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) at 1.027 — and is third-youngest player in the league.

This week, Baseball America listed Kelenic among the 10 hottest prospects in baseball, noting he has “one of the prettiest lefthanded swings you’ll find in the minor leagues.”

For Kelenic, his swing has always been “a feel thing.” He doesn’t break down video of his swing — he only watches video of the opposing pitcher before games — and he doesn’t spend much time breaking down all the data available for his batting profile. Instead, he prefers to keep things simple: He watches the ball.

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The flight and the spin of the ball after hitting it, he said, will tell him if his swing is on the right path, if he’s making solid contact.

“The ball will tell me what I’m doing,” he said.

His plan at the plate, he added, has been to focus on the hitting the ball to the opposite field. It’s that simple, and it’s been that effective.

“The biggest thing,” he said, “is I have an approach and I’m sticking to it. That’s the biggest about hitting in professional baseball. Once you figure out the approach that works for you, it’s sticking to it no matter what the count is, no matter what the pitcher throws. And that’s what I’m doing really well.”

Andy McKay, the Mariners’ farm director, has set his iPhone to alert him whenever there is news about Kelenic. And, yeah, his phone has been buzzing a lot lately.

“He’s a very driven kid,” McKay said. “He knows what he wants, and he’s got a decent idea of what it’s going to take to get it.”

More than anything, what has impressed McKay is Kelenic’s commitment to his diet and his weight-training program.

“How many 19-year-olds have the discipline to do what he’s doing?” McKay asked.

The question now has turned to just how quickly do the Mariners want to push Kelenic through the system. Kelenic might be the most important prospect in the club’s rebuilding plans, and McKay acknowledged there have been discussions about a potential promotion for Kelenic — but he is careful to add there is no rush to make that happen.

“Even if he had hit 1.000 in April, he was still going to be there (in West Virginia) in May,” McKay said. “You can’t meet all the requirements that need to be met in that amount of time. It’s impossible. … There is really no set timeline in place.”

Kelenic said he has made strong connections with Farris and West Virginia manager Dave Berg, and McKay said those are factors in a prospect’s development. Those relationships need time to play out.

“The biggest question isn’t when is he going to get promoted. The bigger questions are: Is he getting better? Is he getting closer to becoming a major-league player? Is he understanding what it takes to be Mariner?” McKay said. “The answer to all those is … yes.”

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PROSPECTS WATCH

A look at some of the top performers in the Mariners’ minors

Jarred Kelenic, OF, West Virginia (Low-A)

Season: .327 BA, .429 OBP, .598 SLG, 6 HR, 6 SB, 18 BB, 29 SO

Last 10 games: .333 BA (12 for 36), 5 HR, 6 R, 5 BB, 8 SO

Note: Had a 17-game hitting streak from April 11 through May 2, and has reached base safely in 22 consecutive games entering Wednesday.

Ljay Newsome, RHP, Modesto (High-A)

Season: 4-2 record, 2.50 ERA, 39.2 IP, 33 H, 59 SO, 4 BB

Last start: 3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 5 SO, 0 BB

Note: The 22-year-old right-hander, a 26th-round pick in 2015, was named the California League pitcher of the month for April. His 59 strikeouts rank No. 1 in all of minor-league baseball.

Logan Gilbert, RHP, Modesto (High-A)

Season: 1-0 record, 2.63 ERA, 24 IP, 14 H, 37 SO, 7 BB

Last start: 4.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 SO, 2 BB

Note: The Mariners’ first-round pick in 2018 was promoted from Low-A West Virginia to Modesto in late April. The 22-year-old is in his first season of pro ball.

Kyle Lewis, OF, Arkansas (Double-A)

Season: .242 BA, .364 OBP, .404 SLG, 3 HR, 1 SB, 18 BB, 32 SO

Last 10: .297 BA (11 for 37), 1 HR, 8 R, 8 BB, 11 SO

Note: The Mariners’ 2016 first-round pick has hit safely in 10 of his last 14 games.

J.P. Crawford, SS, Tacoma (Triple-A)

Season: .319 BA, .420 OBP, .457 SLG, 3 HR, 3 SB, 19 BB, 25 SO

Last 10: .382 BA (13 for 34), 1 HR, 5 R, 8 BB, 7 SO

Note: Crawford has reached base in all 30 games he’s played in for Tacoma, including 26 games with at least one hit. He tied a career high with four hits and set a new career high with six RBIs on Monday night.

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