Kelenic’s runway with Mariners is clear — can he finally take off?

Feb 17, 2023, 12:55 AM
Mariners Jarred Kelenic...
Mariners OF Jarred Kelenic stands on deck during a game against Oakland on Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Before most Mariners players even reported to the Peoria Sports Complex for spring training, Jarred Kelenic got another opportunity – the latest in a string of chances for a former top prospect who has yet to meet his potential. Still to be seen is whether he can seize it.

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He’ll have every chance to do so. That’s due in part to bad news for teammate Taylor Trammell, who was hit by a pitch in a workout before spring training began. The result for Trammell is a broken right hand that will require surgery and, thankfully for Seattle and the young outfielder, a chance to return after six to seven weeks. The result for Kelenic is a wide-open role as the left-handed hitter in a left field platoon with right-handed veteran bat AJ Pollock. Also in the competition is the Mariners’ No. 21 prospect Cade Marlowe, though he lacks Kelenic’s big league experience.

It’s been an imperfect path for Kelenic, but also one with continued opportunity.

In early 2021, a far more brash and confident Kelenic lamented his extended time spent in the minors, telling USA Today about the 2020 Mariners season, “I know for a fact I could’ve helped (the Mariners) out.” There was both reason for him to be upset – the interview followed controversial comments by former Mariners president Kevin Mather including about service time that led to his resignation, and Kelenic meant it to apply to more players than just him – and also reason to think he might’ve been right. Kelenic was a top five prospect in baseball at the time and had a fantastic 2019 season with three different minor league clubs, advancing from Low-A to Double-A over the span.

However, he was just 21 years old with fewer than 100 plate Double-A plate appearances, and hesitation from Jerry Dipoto – then Mariners general manager and now the team’s president of baseball operations – focused on Kelenic’s age and limited experience. At the time, particularly following Mather’s comments, that concern felt a bit hollow. Two years removed, it’s become more clear that, for all of his talent, Kelenic is still finding his footing in the bigs.

Last season, Kelenic slashed .141/.221/.313 with seven home runs, five doubles, and 17 RBIs in 163 at-bats. Struggles popped up in the postseason, where Kelenic had just two hits and struck out seven times in 17 at-bats.

Kelenic has struggled to find consistency against left-handed pitchers, and he has also been one of Seattle’s most shifted-against batters. This season brings relief for both issues: Pollock’s addition allows Seattle to spell Kelenic in the lineup against lefties, and MLB is introducing a new rule that will regulate the defensive shift.

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“I don’t know if we did the best we could do to set Jarred up for success a year ago,” Dipoto told Seattle Sports’ Brock Huard and Mike Salk earlier this month on his weekly Thursday show. “There wasn’t a lot of net to catch him if he struggled… This year, how we tried to put him in a better position is to go build a group around him that allowed him the opportunity to an 0 for 8 over a couple days stretch without sinking into that same long-term struggle.”

Still, there will be room for struggle – and that’s intentional. Mariners general manager Justin Hollander believes it’s important to leave what he calls a “runway” for both Kelenic and Trammell to continue to grow.

It may be a frustrating concept for fans who were eager for a big bat and consistent answer in left field, but it’s one that comes with a recent success story: Cal Raleigh, who was presented an opportunity last season when starting catcher Tom Murphy was lost to a shoulder injury, set the single-season franchise record by a catcher with 27 home runs after a slow start to his big league career.

“If you never provide a runway for your internal options to get better, to improve, you’ll never be sustainable,” Hollander said Feb. 1 when he joined us on Bump and Stacy. “You’ll never be as good as you think you are.”

The goal, according to Hollander, is to keep the club competitive while also leaving that runway for Kelenic and Trammell. Pollock provides some insurance should the struggle continue well into the season. The hope, of course, is that one or both of them take a step forward.

It feels simultaneously redundant and also important to mention here that it’s not easy to take that next step with the weight of lofty expectations on your shoulders. Kelenic in particular is in limbo: on the one hand, he’s a still-so-very-young player who boasts a ceiling higher than virtually any other offensive prospect to have come through Seattle’s system in the last several years not named Julio Rodríguez. On the other, he’s an outfielder who has been given several opportunities with a club that’s willing to leave room for development, but also one who is running out of options.

Gone is the immediate competition in left field. Gone too is the defensive shift. Gone is the pressure to save a franchise. In place of all of that is a single request: help the team in any way you can.

The runway the Mariners leave for their youngest players to try and fail is long, though not endless. Eventually, road runs into grass – and with continued struggles, Kelenic may be hoping the kind he finds elsewhere is greener. For now, though, this perhaps for one final time is his best chance to take off.

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