Drayer: Struggles for Mariners’ prospects Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez have been valuable
When the Mariners acquired 19 year old Jarred Kelenic in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade, the hope was they would be able to pair their new young top prospect with another already in the system, 18 year old Julio Rodriguez, and perhaps move them together through the minor leagues.
The two started their seasons together at Low-A West Virginia but ended up taking very different paths soon after, with Rodriguez suffering a broken hand on a hit-by-pitch just nine games into his season and Kelenic, after a slow start, earning a promotion after 50 games.
Last Saturday the Mariners moved Kelenic a second time, promoting him to Double-A Arkansas. This week the decision was made that the time was right to move Rodriguez up a level as well.
“We made the decision if Modesto made the playoffs we would move Julio there,” explained director of development Andy McKay. “Then it was if we are going to do that then why not do it now while they are in this chase? He’s been playing so well, he’s absolutely earned it.”
Rodriguez, who is the second-ranked Mariners prospect and 53rd-ranked prospect overall according to MLB Pipeline, was hitting .293/.359/.490/.850 for the season at the time of his promotion. He has hit .362/.416/.652/1.068 over his last 17 games and done so at an age 3.5 years younger than league average. If it feels like he is moving fast, the reality of the situation is that he is just getting going.
“We held him back last year in the Dominican Summer League,” McKay pointed out. “There was a lot of conversation — we should get him to Peoria (Rookie Ball), we should get him to Peoria. We kept him down there because he was doing so well with Cesar Nicolas, who was managing the team, and David Flores, who was his hitting coach. We didn’t want to break up that situation because he was thriving in it.”
In addition to good numbers, McKay is pleased with a type of development that can’t be measured by metrics that he has seen in 2019 from both Kelenic and Rodriguez. Both players have had to deal with adversity this year and bounce back. For Rodriguez, it was dealing with injury and the disappointment of having his first season in the US briefly derailed.
“Julio had a hiccup when he broke his hand,” said McKay. “All these lessons that are learned, now you can check off the boxes, so now he has been through a rehab process. He had to go to Peoria. That is hard. For people who do not grasp that concept: to get pulled out of a competitive environment and go back to the complex where your day really revolves around a few hours of rehab, whatever conditioning you can do, and then you are back at the hotel, you are back at your apartment for 12, 13 hours. You hear these guys talk about, ‘I watched the first 4 seasons of ‘The Office’ today,’ because it’s 110, 115 degrees, (and) you can only go to the mall so many times. He’s done that.
“He’s played as a very young player in the Sally League,” McKay continued. “He’s dominated the league. He’s definitely gotten better. He’s been in the States so he’s really accomplished a lot and he has actually struggled and come back from it. In the second half of July he went through quite a funk there and you want that. These players have to learn what it is like to go to the plate with no confidence and how to get through that and how to slowly get back on track. It’s a skill you have to acquire.”
Kelenic’s adversity came very early out of the gates when he struggled in his first weeks at West Virginia. Phone calls from Daniel Vogelbach, a young player who had been through similar struggles, helped get him on track. Like Rodriguez, the physical aspect came into play too; Kelenic has dealt with both wrist and ankle issues this season.
“It’s another lesson,” said McKay. “You have to learn how to play hurt. For a young player to understand, ‘When do I go in the training room, when do I not? When do I go on the IL, when do I try to play through?.’ Because making the wrong decision either way can be disastrous. It’s hard to figure out with your body. Is something really wrong or am I just sore today? In a game that you play every day, that’s another lesson that kids have to figure out and learn. Sometimes it is an obvious one like with Julio when you get hit and you break a bone, that’s an easy one. Can I really go out and compete with my ankle that is swollen and hurt?”
Managing the day in, day out — and yes, the cliché ups and downs — is key. Recognizing they are a part of the game is the first step.
“It’s going to happen. Nobody gets through a Major League season without bleeding a little bit, whether as an individual or as a player, you hit these tough stretches. You learn how to handle it so that what should be a tough four to five days does not become a tough four weeks. Very few players get that kind of leash where they are allowed to struggle for that long at the big league level.”
To that end, the struggles of Kelenic and Rodriguez in their first full seasons in pro ball have been valuable.
“We learned a lot from it and they have learned a lot from it,” said McKay.
Enduring and overcoming the struggles has been part of the process for both players and on Saturday, Rodriguez is one step closer to his goal of one day making it to the big leagues.
“This year he skips two levels and goes to West Virginia and is borderline having a historic season for that age,” McKay said. “He’s earned it, he deserves it and we couldn’t be more excited about it.”