The impatience gambit
The Jarred Kelenic era is set to begin later this week
May 10, 2021
If you follow various Mariner-boosters on social media, you've undoubtedly come across—or generated yourself—demands from fans that the Mariners promote their top prospects to the big leagues. Calls from the peanut gallery to have Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, in particular, take the field at TMP immediately if not sooner have only been more prevalent with the team plodding along with an historically bad offense and two vacancies in the starting rotation.
Well, the peanut gallery is getting its wish—at least in part—as the M's announced they plan to promote Kelenic to the Major League club when the team returns home on Thursday. I'm fairly sure the Twitter demands had nothing to do with the decision. General manager Jerry Dipoto has said on a few occasions that he planned on bringing Kelenic up to Seattle sometime before the All-Star break, and he doesn't need social media to tell him that every current option for left fielder is batting under .200.
By some metrics, this move makes sense. I mean, it's not like Kelenic could be worse than Taylor Trammell, the guy most likely to get sent down to make room for him, has been. Might as well get the guy up here, right? Well...maybe.
Occasionally there is a prospect that really can jump into the big leagues with little development. Fernando Tatis Jr. comes to mind. Alex Rodríguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Trout. It's entirely possible Jarred Kelenic is one of those and we'll all applaud this decision at the end of the season. But for every Bryce Harper who's all set nearly immediately, there are Dustin Ackleys and Mike Zuninos, highly-touted prospects anointed as the next superstars that get rushed to the bigs and flop hard.
A first-round draft choice of the Mets out of high school in 2018, Kelenic got 220 at-bats in Rookie league that summer. He then was traded to the M's in the big Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz deal and began 2019 at the Class-A level and tore it up for 50 games, batting .309/.394/.586 in the South Atlantic League and earning promotion to High-A Modesto for another 46 games. A slightly lesser but still very good line there got him bumped up to Double-A Arkansas, where he finished out the ’19 season batting .253/.315/.542 against Class-AA competition. Last year, of course, there were no minor leagues so Kelenic worked out at the "alternate training site"; so far this year, he's been with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, who have played just five games (Kelenic is 9-for-22 thus far).
The missing 2020 season makes it hard to gauge the wisdom in promoting Kelenic this fast. Had 2020 been a normal campaign, he'd likely have had most of a year at Triple-A by now and either shown he was ready for more or that there were things still to work on. As it is, he'll have had all of six games at Triple-A, all of them against the same opponent, and even with the gaudy averages from those games the sample is much too small for it to mean much. He will essentially be yet another Mariner who skipped Triple-A on his way to the Majors, joining Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Justin Dunn, Will Vest, and (for the moment) Taylor Trammell. Luis Torrens also hasn't ever set foot in Triple-A, but due to a history as a Rule 5 player his path was wonkier than most. (Relievers Aaron Fletcher and Wyatt Mills also skipped the level, but could easily find themselves getting their first tastes of Triple-A any day now.)
The fast track hasn't worked out well for White and Trammell (combined MLB average: .172), Dunn has had mixed results and probably could have benefited from Triple-A time, and though Lewis was the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, it was on the basis of one month of success—the first half of the abbreviated 2020 season Lewis hit .368/.456/.585; then the league figured out how to pitch him and the rest of the way he batted just .150/.265/.280 with a K rate of 37%. Until the Mariners' most recent series in Texas, Lewis' ’21 line was similar, .184/.231/.388.
Sometimes prospects don't pan out no matter what, but sometimes the development pace matters. Zunino was in Seattle in his second year as a professional, and despite riding the Tacoma shuttle for a few years afterward never became what he was expected to be as the number-three overall pick of the 2012 draft. Corey Patterson was a hot commodity, going third overall in the 1999 draft to the Cubs and after a year in Double-A found himself at Wrigley Field for 2001. He'd eventually have a couple of decent years after getting some experience, but a career line of .252/.290/.400 is hardly what teams expect from a first-round selection. Onetime Mariner Gordon Beckham, drafted in the first round by the White Sox in 2008, was touted as the ChiSox's "savior" when he was called up to Chicago after one year of professional ball; he did well in ’09 but crashed hard afterward and retired with a career line of .237/.300/.367.
Kelenic has the hype of an Alex Rodríguez. And the hype of a Dustin Ackley. Which will turn out to be the better comp? We'll find out, as the experiment starts Thursday vs. Cleveland.