Drayer: Jarred Kelenic is frustrated, but Mariners contend they’ve stuck to their plan for him

Feb 24, 2021, 3:25 PM | Updated: 3:44 pm
Mariners Jarred Kelenic...
Jarred Kelenic shared his frustration with the Mariners' handling of him to USA Today. (Getty)

On Sunday, the MLB Players Association addressed the comments made by now former Mariners team president Kevin Mather in a statement posted on social media.

On Wednesday it was Jarred Kelenic, the top-ranked Mariners prospect who finds himself in the middle of an issue that will be at the forefront of the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA, who spoke out along with his agent Brodie Scoffield in an interview with USA Today.

At issue is the Mariners’ decision not to call the 21 year old up to the majors in 2020 and the reasons given by Mather in his now infamous speech to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club that hinted at service time manipulation.

Kelenic, an outfielder who ranks No. 1 in the Mariners’ farm system on MLB Pipeline, was among a group of 15 prospects that were assigned to the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma last year. Teams were allowed to keep a 30-player pool active at these sites to be available should the big league team need them. According to Mather’s comments, prospects like Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert were there to continue their developmental work, not to be available to the big league club should the need arise.

“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. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service time clock. There were all kinds of reasons that, if we would have had an injury problem or a COVID outbreak, you might’ve seen my big tummy out there in left field. You would not have seen our young players, our prospects, playing at T-Mobile Park. The risk paid off.”

With the 2020 minor league season canceled, the Mariners and other clubs added prospects to their alternate site rosters to get them work. Seattle’s group included Kelenic, Gilbert, Julio Rodríguez, Noelvi Marte (who had yet to play a game stateside), George Kirby (who had been under tight restrictions in New York during the shutdown), and three 2020 draft picks including first-rounder Emerson Hancock.

Finding room for your prized prospects to get work seemed a worthy priority, and the Mariners were not alone in doing so. But to say the words that they wouldn’t see the big leagues – that’s a different matter. For those who were far from the majors, that made sense. Kelenic, who was closer, saw it another way.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Kelenic told USA Today. “I worked extremely hard all offseason. And last year, here you have a team that is one game out of the playoffs going into the last weeks of the season. I know for a fact I could have helped that team out. Not just me, but there are other guys who could have helped that team out.

“Not to be given that opportunity was so beyond frustrating. I feel that guys should be rewarded for their play, and have the best guys on the field, especially when you talk about a team that hasn’t gone to the playoffs in 20 years, and your best prospects are just sitting there watching.”

At bigger issue personally for Kelenic is his belief that he would have been called up last year had he signed a long-term deal with the Mariners but hasn’t yet because the team can ensure a full six years of club control on his current contract by waiting until late April to start his service time clock. In Mather’s Rotary talk, he described the proposed deal as a “six-year deal for substantial money with options to go farther.”

“It was communicated to Jarred that had he signed that contract, he would have debuted last year,” Scoffield told USA Today. “It was made crystal clear to Jarred – then and now – that his decision not to call him up is based on service time.

“There’s no question that if he signed that contract, he would have been in the big leagues.”

Before COVID hit, there was little doubt Kelenic would have been in the big leagues at some point in 2020 – at worst a September call-up, at best perhaps in mid-May or June. As it was, the MLB season was limited to 60 games with Kelenic assigned to the alternate site, where, as he told USA Today, he was reminded frequently of what perhaps could have been.

“It wasn’t just communicated one time to me. It was told to me several times. That’s the God’s honest truth. It got old,” he said in reference to being called up to the majors if he signed an extension.

When Mariners manager Jerry Dipoto met with the media Tuesday morning, a day before the USA Today piece was published, he declined to talk about the contract offer saying that it was unfortunate it became public and that any discussion on contracts between the Mariners and their players should remain between them. Kelenic’s development plan? That’s another matter.

“This is not a scenario in that we have not spoke with Jarred Kelenic about his development, and I could say the same thing about Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh,” Dipoto said. “We are very open in the way we talk to our players and the truth we tell, and sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t. All of our players are aware of what their path is, what their development plan looks like and we are very direct in how we share it.

“Jarred Kelenic has played 21 games above A-ball. He’s 21 years old, he’s already on an accelerated path. Whether we did or did not offer him the contract is irrelevant to his development pattern. We have a desire to develop our players completely. We aren’t going to do anything unprecedented that pushes the development of a young player to the point where we feel they are not ready for an opportunity and that goes beyond just the physical part of it and what you might see on a spreadsheet.”

Dipoto continued to explain his view that the Mariners’ handling of Kelenic has not been an example of manipulating his service time.

“We’ve talked about Jarred Kelenic in this light for some time and I’m not sure how you could construe a service time manipulation with a 21 year old player who has played 21 games above A-ball and who has not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player,” he said. “That would be an unprecedented run to the big league by a high school draftee. That hasn’t happened in three decades, and while Jarred is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure 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 that he has been fully developed and do that to the best of our ability.”

For reference, Kelenic has accumulated 92 plate appearances in 21 games above High-A. Mike Trout played 91 games above High-A with 412 plate appearances before his MLB debut, and Bryce Harper had 37 games and 147 plate appearances. Elite company indeed, though Kelenic is expected to be elite. As such, he has never been shy in sharing his belief in himself as he did last month in a media session.

“If you were to ask me last year if I felt I was ready to be in the big leagues, I would have told you yes, but I would have told you I was ready two years ago,” Kelenic said then with a slight smile. “It’s a moot point. This year it’s going to be the same mindset going in and hopefully get a roster spot and help the team win.”

It appeared there were no slight smiles during his interview for the USA Today article, however. While Kelenic is not directly quoted as saying so, it is surmised that Kelenic feels he was being punished for not signing the deal offered by the Mariners. Had he signed the extension last offseason, he and his agent contend he would not have been left at the alternate site.

This most likely is true, but not for reasons of punishment.

In 2020, everything changed drastically. Due to the usual 162-game season being shortened to 60, every day of service time counted as roughly 3.5 days in a regular year. So if Kelenic had signed the contract he had been offered, of course he would have been up with the Mariners. They would have taken whatever they could get from him because of the situation.

Mather’s comments about the handling of Kelenic and others at the alternate site, as well as citing arrival dates for top prospects, will no doubt be used by the MLBPA as exhibits A, B and C in the upcoming CBA negotiations. Before then, the Mariners very well could be facing a grievance from the union. If it comes to that, how Mather’s comments stand up against Dipoto’s numbers and plan remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the issue across baseball is not going away.

It was a surprise to not see service time addressed in the previous CBA. It will – and for the good of the game should be – front and center this time.

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