Here’s why Jarred Kelenic is the biggest conundrum in the Mariners’ rebuilding plan

Here’s why Jarred Kelenic is the biggest conundrum in the Mariners’ rebuilding plan

The Jarred Kelenic trade is getting a lot of revisionist analysis this weekend as the Mariners face the Mets in New York for the first time since those two teams consummated the deal on Dec. 3, 2018.

And that’s not a good sign for the Mariners.

Once regarded as Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto’s master stroke and the Mets’ biggest faux pas, those conclusions have been altered — particularly in New York. A tweet Thursday by longtime baseball writer Jon Heyman of the New York Post pretty much tells the story:

Mets won the Kelenic-Cano-Diaz trade. There I said it. Mets got 3.6 WAR and a closer, M’s -0.2 WAR and .173 hitting young OF. Don’t @ me.

It’s obvious what has led to such opinions. Save for one month, Kelenic has had almost nothing but struggles since he got called up by the Mariners last May (a year ago to the day), assuaging the darkest fears of Mets fans that they would have to live with a decade or more of his superstardom in a Mariners uniform. On Friday, instead of facing the horde of New York media who no doubt would have greeted him at Citi Field, Kelenic was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma.

Conversely, even though Robinson Cano was released by the Mets last week, acknowledgment of a $40 million gamble gone wrong, reliever Edwin Diaz has been instrumental in leading the Mets to the top of the NL East. Coupled with Kelenic’s ongoing issues hitting major-league pitching, it’s now chic to point out that maybe it was the Mariners, not the Mets, who badly miscalculated this deal.

That’s just as premature as the earlier assessments. But it’s also fair to have major concerns about when, and even if, Kelenic will live up to the towering expectations attached to him from the day he joined the Mariners.

Mind you, I’m not relegating Kelenic to the scrapheap of busted prospects. It’s easy to see the outline of an accomplished major-leaguer when you look at Kelenic. It’s just that filling in the holes is proving to be far more problematic than expected.

There’s a huge amount riding on the Mariners’ ability to get Kelenic turned around. Much of the blueprint of their rebuild campaign was predicated on Kelenic leading the wave of prospects that Dipoto envisioned as the catalysts of a consistent playoff-caliber team.

It hasn’t quite happened as drawn up. While Logan Gilbert, called up from Tacoma the same day as Kelenic last year, is blossoming into a high-caliber starter, and Julio Rodriguez appears on the verge of taking off six weeks into his major-league career, the grand plan has gone off track in other areas.

Evan White, envisioned as the first baseman of the future, is injured for the second consecutive year and has just a .165 average to show for his 84 games in the big leagues. Outfielder Kyle Lewis has flashed major ability but is saddled with chronic knee issues that have limited his contribution. Cal Raleigh, whom they hoped would give them a stalwart at catcher, has a .159 average in 60 career games and is mired in an 0-for-23 slump interrupted by a stint in the minors.

But Kelenic is the biggest conundrum, by far. When he was called up last May 13, Dipoto wisely urged caution but told me, “Jarred Kelenic is going to be a good hitter in this league. I hope that starts today. But minimally I know that to be true. His process and his talent is just too good. He’s done what we asked him to do at every step, so that he’s being rewarded with the best thing we can give him, which is an opportunity in the big leagues to show it.”

What he has shown is not encouraging. Kelenic is hitting.140 in 96 plate appearances this year, with 36 strikeouts in 86 at-bats for a 37.5 percent strikeout rate. Overall, his average in 123 games is .173, which Joel Sherman of the New York Post pointed out is the lowest in history for players with at least 450 plate appearances in the first two years of their career.

It should be pointed out that Kelenic has played outstanding defense in right field this year, and every once in a while puts together an at-bat that reminds you why scouts and analysts were drooling over him for years as a can’t-miss prospect. But his final at-bat before being sent down encapsulated his struggles. Sent up to pinch-hit Wednesday with the Mariners trailing the Phillies 4-2 in the ninth inning, Kelenic didn’t take the bat off his shoulder and struck out on four pitches.

It was clear then that Kelenic had to go down to a less-stressful venue to get back on track. One can see the strain on Kelenic’s face when he steps to the plate, and I suspect he’s battling the mental as much as the physical. Justin Hollander, the Mariners’ assistant general manager, told reporters in New York on Friday, “Nobody thinks this is mechanical. Nobody thinks it’s a talent issue. … I was talking to somebody the other day; they call it the transition tax that you pay with the difference between the minor leagues and the big leagues that has never been greater. And he just needs reps against competition to remember how good he is again.”

Manager Scott Servais said more than once Friday that what Kelenic needs more than anything is to find a way to again have fun playing the game. That’s not easy when the stakes are as high as they are with Kelenic.

“He knows that it’s critical for him to be a big part of our offense for us to do well,” Servais said. “He wants to get it going right as quick as he can. … It’s probably not going to happen here right now. So let’s do the right thing for the player, which we’ve always strived to do. And I think stepping back right now is the right thing, and he understands it.”

This is the second minor-league demotion for Kelenic, who came back last year to record a promising September/October in the midst of a playoff chase. He put up a .248/.331/.524 slash line with five home runs and some huge hits in key moments.

In spring training, Kelenic predicted his struggles would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened in his career. He said he had learned how to process the ups and downs of a season and not let a slump derail him.

“It’s all about taking some of the things I learned from last year, the struggles that I had, and applying it to this year, because there’s no reason that last year should happen this year,” Kelenic said in March. “Because if it does it’s on me.”

Servais stressed that Kelenic is a mere 22 years old, and the story of his career hasn’t even come close to being written, Hollander said there is no distinct timetable for Kelenic’s return. But what doesn’t need to be spoken is that this stint in Tacoma is crucial for Kelenic to hone the mental approach that will allow him to thrive in the majors.

“I think his process was good for a stretch, and he wasn’t getting results,” Hollander said. “And I think that sort of manifested itself in chasing results a little bit and getting away from his process. He’ll go down, he’ll take a breath. He’ll come up with a plan that works for him. That he’s confident in. And my guess is, when he’s ready, he’ll be back and he’s going to be a really good player at that point.”

Despite the hue and cry to promote Kelenic last year, the only logical retroactive conclusion is that he was rushed to the majors. Kelenic going back to Tacoma is unequivocally the best thing for his developmental process, and for the Mariners. Kelenic returning as a closer version of the player the Mariners envisioned when they traded with the Mets would be a far better thing.

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