'Getting Jarred back': Kelenic talks progress

Mariners outfielder working back to big leagues after two months in Minors

July 13th, 2022
Jeff Halstead, MiLB.com

TACOMA, Wash. -- The Mariners have been the hottest team in baseball the past three weeks, and if the season ended after their comeback win Sunday, they’d have been in the playoffs as the final AL Wild Card team by virtue of a tiebreaker. Yet for all the key contributions they’ve received, especially from the fruits of a top-ranked farm system, there’s one glaring void from the on-field success in Seattle.

And that absence leads to a grander question as the Mariners eye crucial games out of the All-Star break against the Astros and Yankees, the Trade Deadline on Aug. 2 and how they construct their roster for this late-summer sprint:

Where does Jarred Kelenic fit into all this?

It’s been exactly two months since Kelenic was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma, a stretch that has been far more prolonged than most -- at least among those outside Seattle’s front office -- might’ve forecasted when the decision was made.

To answer the longer-term question, it’s necessary to begin with one more immediate: What has Kelenic been up to during this full-course Minor League reset?

“I’m getting comfortable again,” Kelenic told MLB.com on Tuesday. “When I came down here, I was only focused on myself and making sure that I can help this team win ballgames and get myself back to who I am.”

How does he return to that point, and what led him astray?

“Without going into too much detail, it's just like, it's no different than anybody else. When you're not yourself, you're not,” Kelenic said. “People recognize it that you're close to, and then it's hard for you to perform like yourself out on the field. So, for me, it was just getting back to that and getting back to playing the game the right way and just being a competitor.”

Moreover, why did he feel he got away from himself?

“There were a lot of different things that escalated,” Kelenic said. “I had a lot of voices in my ear, and now I don’t. And so, the only voice I have in my ear is my own. It’s the only one I need. It’s hard to make adjustments when you have a lot of people in your ear, and that alone is part of the process.”

“Process” is Kelenic’s mantra these days, voiced with a lather-rinse-repeat delivery when describing his path back to the big leagues. The trope is wide-ranging yet ambiguous, not unlike the team’s commentary on what they want to see from the 22-year-old before returning. Most of it has centered around a stronger two-strike approach, hitting breaking balls more consistently and seeing lefty pitching better.

Before being optioned, Kelenic was 3-for-51 in two-strike counts, 3-for-45 against non-fastballs and 3-for-20 against lefties. And Kelenic continued to experience some pronounced struggles in those areas after the demotion, as Baseball Prospectus detailed last month.

Since that story published, he’s swinging-and-missing 39% of the time against offspeed and 36.1% against breaking balls, per Brooks Baseball, which tracks Minors pitch data. It’s an improvement, but still a high rate. Additionally, Kelenic entered Tuesday 17-for-85 (.200) with two strikes at Tacoma and has a .652 OPS vs. lefties compared to .872 against righties.

“JK has made steady and consistent progress towards the goals we created for him in Tacoma,” Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said. “There isn’t a formula or specific timeline for his return to Seattle, but we are committed to helping him fully develop himself so that he can have sustained success and help us win games when he returns to the Major League level.”

However, zooming in on the past three weeks, Kelenic is swinging one of the hottest bats in Triple-A. Entering Tuesday, he had had a hit in 14 of his past 15 games dating to June 22 and was slashing .343/.421/.702 (1.123 OPS) in that span. He was named the Pacific Coast League Player of the Week for July 4-10. And after his homer on Tuesday against Oklahoma City, 30 of his 53 hits at Tacoma have gone for extra bases. But it’s more of the underlying results that the Mariners are examining.

“Regardless of goals, I wasn't really concerned about that because that'll take care of itself,” Kelenic said. “I was more concerned about just getting Jarred back.”

There have been moments in recent weeks that looked like, from a roster-need standpoint, Kelenic might be on the cusp of returning, notably when outfielder Taylor Trammell was placed on the injured list with a right hamstring strain on June 29. The Mariners instead selected longtime Minor Leaguer Marcus Wilson, who made his MLB debut, and recalled utilityman Sam Haggerty, who gives them more defensive versatility. Wilson was optioned back to Tacoma when Ty France returned from a left elbow injury.

Dylan Moore has seen more regular playing time -- and performed well -- filling in during the suspensions of Jesse Winker and J.P. Crawford, with a .941 OPS and a few key homers since the incident in Anaheim. Adam Frazier, however, has not been as consistent, with a .445 OPS in that same stretch while also seeing more outfield time due to the suspensions.

That alignment won’t continue long term, especially with right fielder Mitch Haniger slated to return from the IL later this month if he remains on track. And with Julio Rodríguez blossoming into a plus center fielder, and an All-Star, that leaves left field as the likeliest landing spot for Kelenic. But the uncertainty is when. During a similar Minors demotion for five weeks last year, the Mariners recalled him out of the All-Star break.

“I can help them whenever they decide to call me up,” Kelenic said. “That never left. But again, I’m just down here trying to focus on my process and get myself right.”

This Triple-A stint won’t be forever. In fact, the Mariners sorely hope that it is Kelenic’s last. Beyond the club’s stated goals, the intention is, in part, to make up for lost time -- after the 2020 Minors season was canceled due to the pandemic and perhaps, admittedly, promoting him to the Majors too soon last year.

Yet as the Mariners march their way up the standings -- and more so, on the shoulders of homegrown pieces like Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby -- Kelenic’s absence looms a little larger. He was the face of the farm system not long ago.

Does seeing the success of his peers have Kelenic yearning even more to be there?

"It’s tough, because I'm with the Rainiers here,” Kelenic said. “So I'm just trying to focus on this team and make sure we win games down here. I'm keeping my attention away from that.”

Kelenic calls this stage of his career a “process.” The team calls it “progress.” They both want him back in the Majors, but given all the avenues that led to this point, it’s unclear if that’ll be sooner or later.