Mariners 'need to be smart' with Kelenic

Top prospect impressing, but club doesn't want to rush him

July 14th, 2020

SEATTLE -- Shortly before the Mariners began playing games at Summer Camp a week ago, general manager Jerry Dipoto chatted with a group of reporters, noting that one of the challenges of the coming days would be to not get too carried away with one exciting performance -- or even a week or two of impressive scrimmages or taxi squad outings -- by the bright young prospects on his club.

Then along came on Monday, crunching a pair of home runs in an intrasquad game and raising immediate and understandable questions over whether the 20-year-old outfielder should be on Seattle’s Opening Day roster, jump-starting a career everyone is eager to see.

Clearly, Kelenic is a special talent as the Mariners’ No. 1-ranked prospect and the No. 11 prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. But prior to the pandemic, the plan this year was to start Kelenic at Double-A Arkansas -- where he played his final 21 games last season -- and let his performance dictate possible promotions to Triple-A Tacoma and, if all went well, perhaps Seattle sometime in the second half of the season.

Of course, not all went well. Not with Kelenic, but with the world as COVID-19 shut down MLB for 3 1/2 months and left teams with a 60-game schedule that will start July 24 for the Mariners.

So, the Mariners face a decision now, and not just with Kelenic. Starting pitcher Logan Gilbert, their No. 3 prospect and No. 38 in MLB, is another who might have been knocking on the door by now.

With no Minor League season, they were brought -- along with a group of other promising prospects -- to Seattle as part of the 60-player pool with the idea of giving them a few weeks to work with the big league club before heading to Tacoma to get several months of practice and intrasquad competition, to at least salvage something from this lost year.

Weighing the pros and cons
So why not just put Kelenic -- who turns 21 next week -- on the Major League roster and let him play?

It’s not a simple question, given concerns over whether pushing a player too soon could wind up hurting his development -- a situation the Mariners learned the hard way with catcher Mike Zunino when the 2012 first-round Draft pick was brought up in ‘13 after just 96 Minor League games, including 52 at Triple-A.

Zunino was drafted out of college and was 22 at the time of his callup, yet still struggled offensively and had to be sent back to the Minors several times in the ensuing years.

Kelenic has played 173 Minor League games, but only 21 of those are at the Double-A level, as he was drafted straight out of high school.

The Mariners feel Kelenic can still progress this year by facing their elite Minor League pitching prospects in Tacoma workouts, and that experience would be more beneficial than being thrown in against established big leaguers before he’s ready.

“I think we need to be smart here,” manager Scott Servais cautioned on Tuesday as reporters questioned whether Kelenic might be changing the club’s thought process. “Certainly Jarred has tremendous talent. There is no question he’s going to be fun to watch in a Mariners uniform for a long time. But oftentimes you see players that get rushed through a little bit and really take a step backward.

“We don’t want that to happen with Jarred. We want to be sure the time is right for him and for us, and then go forward and never have to look back again.”

The Mariners aren’t slamming the door, but they are preaching patience.

“We’ll just wait and see how it plays out,” Servais said. “He’s been very impressive, everything he’s done since we acquired him. It’s one of the reasons we did acquire him. We knew he had that kind of talent. It’s fun to watch him mature and grow. I just look forward to watching him play every day.”

Service time questions
The shortened 60-game schedule raises several unique questions. A big one is service time, which every MLB team considers with young players. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player remains under team control for his first six full years of service time, with one typical year consisting of 172 days on the Major League roster out of a 187-day schedule.

Many teams have waited about a month into a season before promoting top prospects in order to not “start their service time clock” until enough time has passed so the player doesn’t accrue a full year of service and, thus, will remain under team control for a seventh season before reaching free agency.

This year isn’t typical, however. Players will accrue service time in the shortened season on a pro-rated scale, with each day roughly equal to 2.8 days in a normal 162-game season. That means a player held back for just the first 11 days in 2020 would be the equivalent of sitting out a full month in a normal year.

The flip side of that is the player would then only have about a month and a half of remaining season to play at the big league level in this abbreviated campaign, as opposed to the normal four or five months.

Is it worth rushing a player like Kelenic into an uncertain situation both in terms of health and service time before it’s clear that he’s ready just to play in an abbreviated season? That is a question the Mariners must answer soon.

“We do want to be aware of what is best for his development and not hold him back artificially,” Dipoto said last week. “But as aggressive as I want to be -- and I understand we’re standing in the place where Ken Griffey did his business for so many years -- that’s an exceptional track. And we don’t think it’s necessarily prudent to plan on that. We’re just going to let the days tell us what the right thing is to do.”