Gallant’s Mariners spring training takeaways: Jarred Kelenic looks ready
Mar 5, 2020, 1:15 AM
This is my first time writing about the Seattle Mariners. And with that in mind, I really want to leave a great first impression with the following ramblings.
But after spending last week at Mariners spring training in Peoria, Ariz., the first thing I could think of was an obnoxious cliché. One that I doubt you have patience for.
“Hope springs eternal.”
I am so, so sorry. [Dodges fruit, three tomatoes, and a rotten cabbage]
That line is likely the last thing that you want to hear about the M’s. They’re a team fresh off a 94-loss season and haven’t made the playoffs since 2001.
That said, I felt a quiet yet… confident vibe last week in Arizona. The 2020 Mariners, an extremely young team, really believe they’re on the right track.
The skeptic in me has a lot of questions about the Kool-Aid brewing in Peoria. It’s one thing to hear, smell, and sense the optimism. It’s another entirely to see, let alone taste, that red sugar water. And since it was just a week early in spring training – and the first spring training that I’ve ever covered in my professional career – how much stock could I really put into the baseball I watched?
Last year’s Mariners team is the main reason for my doubt. Because last year, when I was covering the Houston Astros, every game against Seattle was a foregone conclusion. The Trash-Bashing Bois were 18-1(!!!) against the M’s in 2019. That’s a last impression that’ll be hard to shake, so maybe the week’s positivity was just the sunshine seeping into my pasty skin.
And yet I couldn’t help but find myself feeling a legitimate excitement for what the future may hold for these Mariners.
Here are my top five takeaways from Peoria:
The Mariners think they’re close – just not ‘this year’ close.
Again, a frustrating reality for a long-suffering fanbase.
“We don’t feel like it’s five years away,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said when he joined us on Danny and Gallant. “That was the real critical part of this, to do something that had a tangible impact on the here and now. That when we line up in 2020, we, our fan base… can see the result of what we’re trying to do, rather than just hope.”
I respect Jerry’s openness with us about the coming year. And I’m not going to lie, his enthusiasm while talking about the process of transforming the Mariners’ farm system was borderline contagious. But I don’t want to find myself where Philadelphia 76ers fans were, “trusting the process” while Seattle continues to wander through a playoff-less desert season after season. We all want to see results soon.
“How many wins that’s going to turn into in 2020 remains to be seen.” said Dipoto. “But we really believe in this young group of players. And young players when given an opportunity will surprise you.”
Still, it’s likely that many of the young Mariners – like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez – won’t see major league action until at least June. When M’s manager Scott Servais joined Danny and Gallant, he told us his players are focused on winning but especially on being disciplined. He thinks that’s the shortcut to seeing results soon.
“How are we going to measure ourselves?” asked Servais. “Are we consistently getting better? Are we sticking to our process and not getting caught up in the results?”
The leaders have A LOT on their plate.
This is a young, young baseball team. I’m 30 and still older than all but six of the many players in Peoria. And when you’re that young, you’ve got to have proper guidance.
“Often times with veteran players, you assume,” Servais told us. “You assume they know how to get ready for the day. All of those things that go along with being a big leaguer. They’ve done it a while.”
But Servais made it clear that he’s excited about his shift in managerial strategy over the past two seasons, especially when it came to sitting down with players and explaining their “player plans.”
“It’s actually really fun,” he said. “We knew it was going to be different. It was going to be a priority for us to simplify. How simple can we make things? How clear can we be in our messaging?”
Starting pitcher Marco Gonzales – fresh off a four-year, $30 million extension – is also excited to take a bigger leadership role.
“I’ve always wanted to be a guy who guys can come to and look up to,” Gonzales told us. “For me that guy was (Cardinals pitcher) Adam Wainwright when I got drafted. Someone you look up to so much, who’s there for you every step of the way.
“That’s what I want to be. I want to be that resource for guys coming up. Because I know how tough the transition is.”
It’s early in camp, but there’s a real sense of camaraderie.
Over the course of the week, we spoke with Mariners players Justin Dunn, Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield, Shed Long, and the aforementioned Gonzales, Rodriguez and Kelenic. They all raved about the current atmosphere at spring training – a bunch of young guys working together towards breaking into the MLB.
“That’s the nice thing about so many young players,” Servais said. “It isn’t like they’re 19 or 20 years old and jumping into a clubhouse of mid-30s guys. They’re in a group that they can hang out with away from the field. It’s just a tight-knit group of young players that all have similar goals.”
“I didn’t know the team was this close,” 19-year-old phenom Rodriguez said. “If you’re in there, you feel like you’re in a family. We’re all young. And it’s really fun to see in the clubhouse that union that we’ve all got.”
Is chemistry everything? Absolutely not. Sure, the Mariners have some extremely promising players. But eventually, they’ll have to produce. And win.
“You can talk about chemistry all you want,” said Servais. “It’s fun and everyone feels good about it. We all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ But ultimately it’s about winning games. Our players understand that… and I’m really looking forward to this group and seeing how it plays out.”
Julio Rodriguez is quite the personality.
Meeting Rodriguez was my favorite part of our trip to Peoria. Between his confidence, personality, and superhuman physique, he has all the traits of a future Mariners fan favorite.
“I don’t think he’s done growing,” Jerry Dipoto exclaimed about the massive teenager. “He’s gotten bigger and bigger… 6-3, maybe 6-4 now. Physically, he’s going to be an even bigger man. The power is there. The arm strength is there. The athleticism is there. And the confidence. He has a great personality to be the frontman. He’s not afraid of the camera. He’s not afraid of the adulation. He’s really growing leadership traits. He’s a big dude with big strengths, and we feel like he’s got a chance to be a star in this league.”
Considering he’s a 19 year old from the Dominican Republic who’s coming off his first year away from where he grew up, I was really struck by Rodriguez’s command of the English language. He even shocked his new partner in crime, Kelenic.
“We literally met right over there,” Rodriguez told us. “I wanted to introduce myself and shook his hand. At first he was trying to talk Spanish to me because he didn’t know if I knew really good English or not. And whenever I started talking to him he said, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?’”
When asked about Jarred’s Spanish, Julio laughed, telling us “he just said ‘Hola.’”
We found out that Julio is a big NBA fan with a deep appreciation for Giannis Antetokounmpo. He especially loved the backstory of “The Greek Freak,” who made it to the NBA after selling DVDs and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to support his family. And it was really cool hearing Rodriguez’s story of when he found out the Mariners were signing him.
“I needed to run a half-mile after that, and I ran five laps full-speed. I didn’t get tired at all,” said Rodriguez. “… It’s the first step of the biggest dream of your life.”
I want Jarred Kelenic on the Mariners’ opening day roster.
I know, I know. You don’t want to risk Dustin Ackley/Justin Smoak/Jesus Montero-ing the 11th-ranked prospect in baseball by playing him too early. You don’t want to lose a year of team control. And a 5 for 14 start with two walks, a double, a home run and 2 RBIs in spring training is just that – a start.
It’s also insane to gauge a 20-year-old person’s personality based on a 10-minute interview. But Kelenic’s calm, confident demeanor while explaining his hitting process was impressive. He strikes me as someone with a borderline unhealthy obsession with baseball, and I’m all for it.
I understand the risk of putting a prospect in the majors before he’s ready, but don’t you want to see him challenged by major league pitching as soon as possible? Isn’t that the most effective way to help him take the next step? To understand the day-to-day adjustments that a hitter must make in the big leagues? And won’t it be a huge shot in the arm for all the veterans on the Mariners’ roster to see the glorious phenom light at the end of the tunnel?
Make it happen.