PEORIA, Ariz. — About four minutes before the first pitch of Friday night’s Cactus League showdown between the hated “natural” rivals that are the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, with bragging rights for the metaphorical ownership of the Peoria Sports Complex on the line, the much-anticipated and hotly debated decision of Jarred Kelenic making the opening-day roster was announced with an email and a tweet of multiple roster moves.
Officially, Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ two top prospects in the organization and two of the top prospects in all of baseball, were officially “reassigned to minor league camp.”
Kelenic met with manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto on Friday afternoon and was delivered the news.
He still went through the pregame workout with outfielders, displaying his typical intensity and exhibiting no signs of discontent. He was on the top step of the third-base dugout during the early innings of the game, chatting with teammates.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” he said after the game, which he didn’t play in. “I’m a competitor and I want to help this team win as soon as possible. But I understand where they’re coming from and all I can do right now is focus on what I need to focus on and get there as soon as possible.”
Servais said the meeting with Kelenic went well and it was aided by other meetings throughout the week.
“Jarred certainly understands where he’s at,” Servais said. “His player plan meeting, which we do with all the players down here, we’re very clear about the things he needs to improve upon in his game. He’s an exciting young player. He needs to continue to play and get experience. I think he’s in a good spot and part of that is because we’ve been as transparent with him as we possibly can be.”
Servais wouldn’t discuss the things Kelenic needs to improve upon, but he said “there were three areas of growth.”
In comparison to past media sessions about the situation, Kelenic seemed restrained and almost accepting of the decision. Better focus on getting there than being angry about it. He knows it’s only a matter of time.
“That was kind of what was communicated to me in my meeting, is that the finish line is right there,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to keep going and focus on the things that I need to focus on. That’s really all I can control, be a good teammate, especially being down here. It’s not the ideal situation. Obviously, we’d rather be going to an affiliate or something like that to play games, but it’s the cards that I was dealt. I’m just going to continue to play my tail off.”
Of course, Kelenic appears to be far more accepting than a large portion of the Mariners fanbase that wants to see him as the starting left fielder and views this as the organization manipulating his service time.
Even in the months leading up to spring training, it was obvious the situation surrounding Kelenic and his timeline for his major-league debut would loom over spring training. But when former president and CEO Kevin Mather obtusely overshared a large amount of information about the Mariners and the decision-making and thinking, specifically Kelenic’s service time and their awareness of it, well, it created firestorm of destruction, bad feelings and worse perceptions that Dipoto and those left in the organization would have to live through.
In that now infamous Zoom call with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, Mather basically admitted on the record — he’d said as much off the record in conversations last season — that they had no plan of calling up Kelenic or Logan Gilbert for any reason last season, even if there was a COVID outbreak on the team, mentioning their service time as a main reason.
“We brought 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids who never would have seen T-Mobile Park or Cheney Stadium if not for COVID,” Mather said. “As devastating as 2020 was on player development and getting better, we took a risk and brought kids in, our high-end prospects, and really got to know them. They got high-end instruction in Tacoma. The risk was, if our major-league team had had a COVID outbreak, or injuries, and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park.”
While all owners and general managers, specifically smaller and midmarket teams, must at least consider service time and timeline to free agency when making such decisions, they would never admit them in a public setting, certainly one that could be recorded.
But Mather was quite candid in off-the-record questions about the proper decision being made with Kelenic. And he wasn’t the only one with the Mariners who understood the ramifications of starting Kelenic’s service-time clock too soon and losing him to free agency during prime years.
When Mather resigned, chairman John Stanton said that Dipoto would have full control over such a decision and that Mather’s comments didn’t represent the thinking or decision-making of the organization, which is somewhat absurd since Dipoto reported to Mather in the previous leadership structure.
Dipoto pushed back against Mather’s characterization of the situation as well as comments made by agent Brodie Scoffield and Kelenic to USA Today a day after Mather announced his resignation.
“I’m not sure how you construe a service-time manipulation with a 21-year old player who has played just over 20 games above A-ball and has not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player,” he said. “That would be an unprecedented run to the big leagues that hasn’t happened in three decades.”
The most recent player to do that was Alex Rodriguez with the Mariners in 1994. Bryce Harper was close to reaching the big leagues that quickly with the Nationals.
“While Jarred is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure that he has checked off the boxes in development, because it’s incumbent on us, not just for the good of the Mariners, but for the benefit of Jarred Kelenic, to make sure he has been fully developed,” Dipoto said.
Mather’s comments overshadowed any sort of logic or reasoning that the Mariners might provide this spring when it came to their decision with Kelenic. Anything they did with him would be highly scrutinized to see if it had even a minor odor of manipulation.
It seemed no matter what the decision would be, the Mariners would be criticized for their handling of it. Though when Kelenic suffered a leg injury midway through spring training, it appeared that baseball had given the Mariners cover to make a decision they always preferred.
Realistically, it became clear over the past week, even to Kelenic, that he wasn’t going to be on the opening-day roster. He has played sparingly upon his return from a strain in the adductor muscle of his left leg.
He suffered the injury sprinting to first base in a game March 5. While the Mariners thought he would miss two to three weeks, Kelenic proclaimed he would return in seven days. In the end, despite telling the Mariners he was 100% at the seven-day mark, he was cleared to return to game action March 17.
Over the Mariners’ next eight games, he appeared in four of them with two starts, amassing 14 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Taylor Trammell, Jake Fraley and Jose Marmolejos, the other outfielders competing for the left-field spot, played extensively.
Kelenic posted a .333/.478/.778 slash line in nine games with two doubles, two homers, five RBI, four walks and one strikeout.
Did he think the injury hindered his chances of making the team?
“I don’t know if I can answer that, but what I can tell you is that I worked my tail off every single day that I was here,” he said. “I gave it 110% whether I was playing on the field, or whether I wasn’t. And that’s all I can really do. It’s all I could control. I felt like this camp, I really did some really good things. And that’s all I really have to say about it.”
An opposing pro scout questioned whether Kelenic was ready to handle the big leagues and the expected struggles that every prospect endures at baseball’s highest level. But he also thought Kelenic should’ve been on the roster.
“He’s the best outfielder they have that isn’t named (Kyle) Lewis or (Mitch) Haniger),” the scout said a week ago. “And he’s easily the best of the group they’ve got competing for it. It will look bad when he doesn’t make it because it’s obvious to everyone he’s better than those other guys.”
Instead, he will stay in Arizona for minor-league spring training and games.
“I wish that I was going to be able to go with the team to Seattle on opening day but unfortunately that’s not the case,” he said. “This is just another bump in the road that you’ve got to get past and keep working because even when I get to the big leagues whenever that may be, I’m not done working. There’s still a lot more that I want to do. There’s things that I want to do to help this team win and grow as an individual. So getting to the big leagues is definitely a huge goal of mine, but the end goal is much more than that.”
The acrimony started in 2020 when his agent, Scoffield, privately groused about the Mariners handling of his client. He felt the Mariners were manipulating Kelenic’s service time by not putting him on an MLB roster that featured utility infielders and waiver claim Philip Ervin starting most games in the corner outfield spots.
Scoffield spoke of a meeting just at the end of “summer camp” in late July where Kelenic was told he was going to spend the entire 2020 season at the alternate training site in Tacoma working out and wouldn’t be called up regardless of circumstance. They felt it was retribution for declining a contract extension offer made early last offseason that they felt was “insulting.”
Service time manipulation of prospects isn’t new. MLB owners have found a loophole in the system to where they can delay a player’s free agency by one year if they simply avoid allowing them to reach 172 days on the MLB active roster in the 187-day season.
In the compressed 2020 season, players were given service time for a normal season. So basically each day on the MLB roster for the shortened season was worth three days.
So by not calling up Kelenic, who just turned 21 in July, at any point last season, the Mariners guaranteed that the young outfielder wouldn’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2026 season.
And if the Mariners don’t call up Kelenic until after the 16 days have passed, which is likely and could be even longer, he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2027 season.
While Kelenic offered up his anger through tweets and Instagram posts during the 2020 season, and Scoffield privately complained, the Mariners used Kelenic’s lack of experience at the Class AA level or higher as a primary reason of holding him in Tacoma, saying he needed more development.
Kelenic has only competed in two minor-league seasons, 2018 and 2019, after being taken with the sixth overall pick by the Mets in 2018. After being acquired from the Mets as the key return piece in the deal that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to New York, Kelenic played at three levels in 2019 — starting at Low-A, hitting his way to Advanced-A Modesto and earning a spot on a loaded Class AA Arkansas playoff team that featured Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Logan Gilbert, Donovan Walton and Justin Dunn. Kelenic played in 21 games and amassed 92 plate appearances.
By comparison, Mike Trout had 87 games at the Double-A level or higher and 384 plate appearances when he debuted at age 19 and Christian Yelich was 21 with 51 games and 231 plate appearances above the AA level.
Alex Rodriguez made his MLB debut for the Mariners on July 8, 1994, at 18 years and 346 days old. He was taken first overall in the 1993 draft out of Westminster Christian High School in Miami. He didn’t play professionally after the draft. He started 1994 with Class A Appleton and played 65 games, earning promotion to Class AA Jacksonville where he played 17 games and then was called up by then general manager Woody Woodward at the behest of manager Lou Piniella. Rodriguez played 17 games, hitting .204 with two RBI and three stolen bases before being optioned to Class AAA Tacoma where he finished the season. It is instructive to note that those 17 games allowed Rodriguez to become a free agent after the 2000 season instead of the 2001 season.
With all minor-league seasons delayed until the first week of May, Kelenic and Rodriguez are expected to remain in Peoria for the first month of the season and participate in minor-league spring training games and intrasquad games.
The other roster moves made by the Mariners were optioning outfielder Braden Bishop, right-handed pitcher Ljay Newsome and lefty Aaron Fletcher to the alternate training site and re-assigning pitchers Paul Sewald and Brady Lail to minor league camp.