Since the Mariners’ history with their top prospects has been spotty at best, reflexive skepticism is warranted. But if the Mariners have gotten it wrong with OF Jarred Kelenic, then it’s time move the franchise off whatever cursed ground T-ball Park is built upon, and send the club to Oklahoma City.
But for the moment, Mariners fans are free to strap on party hats and do funny dancing — Kelenic will be in uniform Thursday, making his major league debut against Cleveland.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported the news Monday evening, about the time Kelenic was to take the field for the Class AAA Rainiers game in Tacoma against El Paso, likely to be his last minor league game for a long time. The Mariners were off Monday before games against the Dodgers in Los Angeles Tuesday and Wednesday, so Kelenic will meet them in Seattle for the first of a seven-game homestand.
Apparently Kelenic demonstrated sufficient competence in 22 at-bats against AAA pitching to quell general manager Jerry Dipoto’s fears. Kelenic in Tacoma was 9-for-22 with two home runs, five RBIs, six runs scored and two stolen bases.
On a Zoom call with reporters after the Rainiers won 3-2 and he went 1-for-4, Kelenic claimed he had heard nothing about his pending call-up.
“I’m in tomorrow,” he said. “So I’m just honestly going to be going home tonight, going to bed and getting ready for tomorrow’s game.
“All I can really control is living where my feet are at. It’s really exciting playing here, having fans back in the stands and playing against a different team. You just can’t beat it. So I’m excited to get back out here tomorrow and do it all over again.”
That’s probably as politically correct a statement as Kelenic, from Waukesha, WI., has made in his pro career. He was the sixth pick overall in the 2018 draft by the New York Mets, is ranked by ESPN as the No. 3 prospect in baseball and, in the words of ex-team president Kevin Mather, is “a 21-year-old player who is quite confident.”
Among the many slights that Mather offered in his infamous Feb. 5 talk to the Bellevue Rotary Club that got him fired, he didn’t call Kelenic cocky. But he could have, and wouldn’t have been wrong.
“He’s a very good player, and quite frankly we think he’s going to be a superstar,” Mather said. “We would like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably Triple-A Tacoma for a month. Then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile Park for the next six or seven years, and then he’ll be a free agent. He won’t commit beyond his free-agent years.”
Mather confirmed that Kelenic rejected a Mariners contract offer that would have bought out his early free agent years. Mather seemed slightly indignant at the rejection. He made it sound as if a potential call-up in the covid-withered 60-game season of 2020 was denied out of retaliation, not talent.
“There was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park,” he said, also referring to pitcher Logan Gilbert. “We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service-time clock . . . The risk paid off.”
No. Not when you tell the world.
Service-time manipulation has been an open secret in MLB, but it’s never been proven — until Mather confirmed it publicly. The players union jumped all over it, and has it readied for launch when talks begin with owners for a new collective bargaining agreement after the Dec. 1 expiration of the current deal. Informed speculation suggests there will a work stoppage next spring.
Mather and Kelenic will forever be tied together as a footnote in the mostly gruesome history of baseball’s labor problems. One of Kelenic’s agents told USA Today it was “crystal clear” that the decision to not call him up to the majors in 2020 was based on service time.
Fortunately, Kelenic gets the chance to overshadow his inadvertent, awkward intro to Seattle by doing what he does best — play baseball well.
The Mariners certainly can’t say the big-league club doesn’t need him — one of the worst offensive clubs in MLB, Seattle’s collective batting average this season by left fielders, his destination, is .193.
In February after the Mather blow-up, Dipoto said it was purely a matter of development, not service time, that will have delayed Kelenic’s arrival until 38 games into the 2021 season.
“While Jarred is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure that he has checked off the boxes in development,” he said. “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.”
Boxes checked. Need defined. “Quite confident” player ready.