Should Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic debut on opening day? The cases for and against it
The week started off with the focus squarely on the Mariners after the now infamous speech made by team president and CEO Kevin Mather to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club came to light and created a firestorm.
At the end of the week and with Mather officially out of the picture following his resignation, the Mariners are still dealing with the fallout, especially when it comes to prized prospect Jarred Kelenic, who Mather said in the speech would have debuted in the MLB already had he signed a new long-term contract but instead wouldn’t be called up until mid- or late-April.
There’s been a lot of back and forth about how truthful Mather’s comments about Kelenic’s situation were. In a USA Today article published Wednesday, Kelenic and his agent said they were told multiple times in 2020 he would debut with the Mariners if he signed a new long-term contract. Meanwhile, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday in his weekly interview on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny and Gallant that the extension offered to Kelenic came with “a very clear understanding that it would include a minor league assignment.”
What ultimately happens with Kelenic and the Mariners in 2021 remains to be seen, and Kelenic’s situation is clearly going to take center stage in regards to service time manipulation during upcoming negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement between the MLB Players Association and the league. In the meantime, though, there are strong cases to be made both for Kelenic breaking spring training as a big leaguer as well as starting the 2021 season in the minors.
Let’s look at the arguments for each side.
Why the Mariners could delay Kelenic’s debut
Everyone who watches, follows and roots for the Mariners is excited about seeing Kelenic play in the outfield at T-Mobile Park. And while he has all the confidence in the world that he can be an immediate contributor at the MLB level, there’s good reason why he could start in Triple-A regardless of the ongoing debate when it comes to service time.
Kelenic had a great 2019 campaign, thriving in both the Single-A and High-A levels before finishing the season at Double-A Arkansas. The Mariners under Dipoto have shown they’re comfortable promoting players from Double-A to MLB by doing so with Edwin Díaz, Justin Dunn, Kyle Lewis and Evan White. All of those players had much more experience at the level than Kelenic has now, however.
Díaz threw over 140 innings at Double-A. Dunn threw 221.1 innings at Double-A across two years and two organizations. Lewis played 159 games and had 669 plate appearances at that level. White played 92 games at Double-A in 2019 and had 400 plate appearances. Dunn, Lewis and White were also drafted out of college, so they had more overall experience as well than Kelenic, who was drafted out of high school.
Kelenic has just 92 Double-A plate appearances and 751 total minor league plate appearances under his belt, and in Double-A he slashed .253/.315/.540 compared to .290/.353/.485 at High-A and .309/.394/.586 at Single-A.
The last time a top high school draftee had less than 800 minor league plate appearances before debuting in the MLB? Alex Rodriguez, who made his debut with the Mariners in 1994 and didn’t become a full-time MLB starter until 1996.
Perhaps the most notable player when it comes to possible service time manipulation is Kris Bryant, the star third baseman who filed a grievance against the Cubs and MLB because his debut was delayed a few weeks after opening day 2015 so Chicago could keep him under contract for an extra year. Bryant had 773 plate appearances in the minors before his debut, but Bryant played baseball in college and was 23, two years older than Kelenic is now.
It’s clear Kelenic thinks he’s ready, and by all accounts he had a great 2020 at both summer camp and the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma, but he hasn’t faced live pitching from a non-Mariner since September 2019. How he fares against opposition, especially in the second half of spring training as things really ramp up, will be interesting to see. If there’s clear rust against opposing pitchers, a strong case could be made that Kelenic should start 2021 in the minors.
The Mariners have had a history of rushing top prospects to the big leagues who ultimately didn’t live up to expectations, though that hasn’t necessarily applied since Dipoto became GM with the possible exception of White, who signed a contract extension after the 2019 season like the one offered to Kelenic and debuted the next opening day (Dipoto said Thursday that White was told he still had to win a spot in 2020 spring training). Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino and Nick Franklin are a few names that come to mind as young players who struggled to find their footing in the big leagues after being called up by Seattle.
White showed how tough a jump from Double-A to MLB can be, as he had a rough .176/.252/.356 slash line while striking out in over 40% of his plate appearances last season. Offensively, Kelenic is a much more highly-touted prospect than White, though. If Kelenic made the opening day roster and had a start to his career at the plate like White did, it would be tough for both Kelenic and the Mariners, who in that scenario would have a struggling rookie and one less year of club control.
If Kelenic does indeed start 2021 in the minors, he’d almost certainly start at Triple-A Tacoma. The Rainers start play April 8 while the Mariners begin the regular season on April 1. Double-A Arkansas, meanwhile, doesn’t open the season until May 4.
Why Kelenic could break camp with the M’s
The Mariners are in a precarious situation regardless of Kelenic’s showing in spring training, because if he starts the season in the minors there will be some that see it as service time manipulation. Mather’s comments, as well as Kelenic and his agent telling USA Today’s Bob Nightengale he would have debuted in 2020 had he signed an extension, effectively buying out his service time, put the Mariners under a microscope.
As stated, Kelenic believes he’s ready. He also believes he should have debuted last year.
He may be right.
Kelenic’s 2019 showing was spectacular, and he showed five-tool potential by hitting .291, smacking 23 home runs and stealing 20 bases in 117 games across three levels. Part of what made losing the 2020 minor league season so disappointing was that we didn’t get to see Kelenic build off that against fellow prospects. Instead, he went against MLB pitchers at summer camp and also faced top Mariners pitching prospects at the alternate site.
That kind of experience will undoubtedly be valuable for Kelenic and all prospects who took part in the experience, and perhaps that experience was more valuable than facing opposing pitchers in Double-A and Triple-A. That remains to be seen, though.
Additionally, the Mariners didn’t accomplish one of their key goals this offseason, which was to acquire a veteran left-handed hitter who could play left field. Seattle’s lineup is pretty right-handed dominant, so a lefty playing left field is something the team really wants. Kelenic obviously fits that mold, and as far as top contenders for that everyday left field spot besides Kelenic, there’s Jake Fraley and first baseman-turned-utility man José Marmolejos.
Fraley has appeared in parts of two seasons at the MLB level and has slashed just .152/.200/.227 in 19 games. Injuries have contributed to his lack of MLB experience. Marmolejos slashed .206/.261/.411 last year in 35 games.
Neither of those players inspire much confidence, especially as it’s essentially a done deal that Kelenic will debut for the Mariners in the first half of the year. This is a team that has made it clear they hope to turn a corner towards contention in 2021. After playing utility players and bench guys in the outfield for much of last season, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Kelenic shows he’s one of the team’s three best outfielders along with Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis during spring training. If that’s the case, he deserves and needs to play.
And even though Fraley may be a guy the Mariners want to see more of at the MLB level, Kelenic isn’t the only top outfield prospect waiting in the wings. There’s also Julio Rodríguez, Taylor Trammell and others, like 2020 second-round pick Zach DeLoach.
And touching on service time, the Mariners have shown that’s not an issue before with Lewis and Dunn, who both debuted in September 2019, being recent examples.
A story to consider is the one of San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís, who played right away in 2019 instead of starting in the minors to delay the start of his service time clock. That worked out well for Tatís and the Padres. The team made the playoffs last year with Tatis establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in baseball, and he just signed a long-term megadeal, saying that he respected the Padres for not messing with his service time and playing him right away.
There seems to be some sort of strain between Kelenic and the Mariners organization, so perhaps playing him right away could help mend that. And if he performs well and the club starts to win, that helps both parties in terms of easing that supposed tension.
Additionally, members of the organization weren’t the only ones upset by Mather’s comments. Fans have been extremely vocal about their displeasure and as a result, many are upset with the organization. Kelenic making the Mariners’ opening day roster may help restore interest and trust between fans and the team. Additionally, it could add a spark that helps the team right away.
Mariners fans are begging for a winner, and they want a reason to cheer for the team. In that sense, seeing Kelenic in the lineup on April 1 would help a lot.