Jarred Kelenic may be ‘super, super strong,’ but Mariners aren’t tipping off where his season will start
The No. 1 question asked by Mariners fans since the start of spring training 2020 – only further amplified by a bombastic summer camp at T-Mobile Park – has been when Jarred Kelenic will get the call to the big leagues.
Heading into 2021, that question remains as large as ever. Had 2020 been a normal season, there is little doubt he would have already debuted for the Mariners. As it was, the 2020 season for minor leaguers was anything but normal, with a lucky few getting to play two to three “games” a week at Seattle’s alternate site in Tacoma that had little resemblance to actual games.
Where that leaves Kelenic in terms of development – certainly not talent – remains unanswered, as it does for all players who were not able to play in actual games.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Kelenic admitted during a press conference Wednesday as part of the Mariners Virtual Baseball Bash. “But at the same time I tried to take it as the same game that I had been playing. Just kind of came to terms with the situation and tried to make the most of it and go out and compete as much as I possibly could.”
Despite the challenges, in his mind he was ready if the call ever came.
“I think last year was just a mess in general with COVID and everything, like that I think if you were to ask me last year if I thought I was ready to be in the big leagues I would have told you yes,” he said before giving a slight laugh. “But I would have told you that two years ago.”
With just 92 plate appearances and a slash line of .253/.315/.542 (.857 OPS) above High-A, it was hard to see the Mariners calling up Kelenic in a short season. In spring training he appeared to be on track for sooner than later, but to actually break camp with the big league club? That door was not open as they believed more development was needed. The development in 2020 was not via traditional means, but Kelenic made the most of it.
“I tried to be better than I was the day before. I think it was that simple,” he said. “Not even just being on the field, whether it was in the weight room trying to be stronger and lift more weights than I did before, whether it was talking to a different player and getting to know them, I think it was a lot of different things, but the focal point was to be better than I was the day before.”
Fellow prospect Logan Gilbert, a starting pitcher who is also expected to debut for the Mariners in 2021, was of particular help. The two battled each other throughout the summer with neither really feeling the advantage in the familiarity but both taking much away from the encounters.
“It was a lot of fun just because he’s an extreme competitor,” said Kelenic. “The benefit of having someone who was so talented and is so educated in the game? After we would have our games, him and I would sit down and whether he beat me or I beat him, we would walk through the at-bat. ‘Did I show you something for you to throw me this pitch in that count?’ And he would ask me, ‘Why were you sitting on that pitch?’ or something like that. It was really beneficial to pick his brain because it is only going to snowball.”
Kelenic has been working out at his family’s training facility in Wisconsin and has declared himself “super, super strong” heading into spring training. Where he ends up at the end of March remains to be seen.
“Obviously he finished 2019 at the Double-A level, in a very short period of time, and now we have to assess what was his experience in 2020 is the equivalent to,” Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said. “I think anything between Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues is a realistic conversation for parts of 2020.
“My focus with Jarred has always been, and I think we all know where this is headed, it’s about being where his feet are, embracing his grass and finding a way to get better wherever he is, and I think he has done that.”
Similar words have been echoed in the organization, which is a credit to Kelenic. While often brash and supremely confident in his abilities, and despite the adversity of having what should have been his MLB debut season derailed and instead having to make the best of what was available at the alternate site, by all reports Kelenic persevered. He was a good teammate to all and showed something extra off the field in terms of leadership. All checkmarks in the positive column with few remaining on the other side.
“He did it last year very well,” said McKay. “Those (questions about where Kelenic will start the season) are tough ones to answer. I think it will reveal itself in spring training.”
The Mariners desperately want to get this right. Kelenic is a critical piece of the their future and as a top prospect there will be extra focus on him. They want there to be little question that Kelenic is ready when they call him up.
“We’ve done our homework,” said McKay. “We’ve tracked the development stages of every high school position player that has been an impactful big leaguer drafted in the last 20 years and looked at what was their path was like – how many at-bats did they get at each level, how did they translate, where were the mistakes made? We are going to do our best to make the best decision possible.”
That decision plays directly into Kelenic’s goals, both for himself and the Mariners.
“I want to be able to get up in the big leagues and help this team win,” Kelenic said, “and like I said before, be better than you were the day before. I think that still applies to the Mariners being better than the year before. So I think a successful 2021 is going to be that I can get up and help the team win and we can compete for a playoff spot and be better than the year before.”