Jarred Kelenic’s trade is getting a lot of revisionist analysis this weekend as the Mariners take on the Mets for the first time since those two teams finalized the deal on Dec. 3, 2018 in New York.
And that doesn’t bode well for the Mariners.
Once viewed as Jerry Dipoto’s masterpiece and the Mets’ biggest faux pas as President of Baseball Operations for the Mariners, those conclusions have been altered — particularly in New York. A tweet Thursday by longtime baseball author Jon Heyman of the New York Post pretty much tells the story:
Mets won the trade between Kelenic, Cano and Diaz. That’s where I said it. Mets got 3.6 WAR and closer, Ms -0.2 WAR and .173 hitting Young OF. @me not.
It is obvious what led to such opinions. Apart from a month, Kelenic has had almost nothing but struggles since he was called up by the Mariners last May (a year to the day) and allayed Mets fans’ darkest fears that they would have to live with a decade or more of his superstardom in a Mariners uniform. Rather than face the horde of New York media that would no doubt have greeted him at Citi Field, Kelenic was dispatched to Triple-A Tacoma on Friday.
Conversely, despite Robinson Cano being fired by the Mets last week in recognition of a $40 million gamble gone wrong, reliever Edwin Diaz was instrumental in guiding the Mets to the top of the NL East. Coupled with Kelenic’s ongoing problems affecting major league pitching, it’s now spiffy to point out that perhaps it was the Mariners, not the Mets, who miscalculated this deal.
This is just as premature as previous assessments. But it’s also fair to be very concerned about when, and even if, Kelenic will live up to the high expectations that have been placed on him since joining the Mariners.
Mind you, I’m not demoting Kelenic to the scrap heap of broken prospects. It’s easy to see the outlines of an accomplished major league player by looking at Kelenic. Only filling the holes turns out to be far more problematic than expected.
A lot depends on the Mariners’ ability to flip Kelenic. Much of the blueprint of their rebuild campaign relied on Kelenic leading the wave of prospects Dipoto saw as catalysts for a enduring playoff-caliber team.
It didn’t quite go as planned. While Logan Gilbert, who was called up from Tacoma on the same day as Kelenic last year, is shaping up to be a high-profile starter and Julio Rodriguez is poised to hit the big time six weeks into his major league career, the big plan has come to fruition in other areas to pursue .
Evan White, being envisioned as the first baseman of the future, has been injured for the second year in a row and has a .165 average in his 84 major league games. Outfielder Kyle Lewis has shown great ability but suffers from chronic knee problems that have limited his contribution. Cal Raleigh, who they hoped would give them a loyal catcher, has a .159 average in 60 career games and is stuck in a 0-for-23 slump that was interrupted by a stint in the minors.
But Kelenic is by far the greatest mystery. When called up on May 13, Dipoto wisely urged caution but told me: “Jarred Kelenic will be a good hitter in this league. I hope this starts today. But at least I know that’s true. His process and his talent are just too good. He has done what we asked him to do every step of the way so he is rewarded with the best we can give him, which is an opportunity in the big leagues to show that.”
What he has shown is not encouraging. Kelenic has hitting .140 in 96 plate appearances this year, with 36 strikeouts in 86 at-bats for a 37.5 percent strikeout rate. Overall, his 123-game average is a .173, which according to The New York Post’s Joel Sherman 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 excellent defense in right field this year and now and then puts together an at-bat, which reminds you why scouts and analysts drooled over him as an unmissable prospect for years. But his final at-bat before being sent down encapsulated his struggles. Kelenic, sent off to a pinch hit in the ninth inning in the ninth inning with the Mariners trailing 4-2 by the Mariners against the Phillies on Wednesday, didn’t take the bat off his shoulder and hit out on four pitches.
It was clear then that Kelenic needed to go somewhere less stressful to get back on track. You can see the tension on Kelenic’s face as he steps onto the plate and I suspect he’s struggling with the mental as much as the physical. Justin Hollander, deputy general manager of the Mariners, told reporters in New York on Friday: “No one thinks this is mechanical. Nobody thinks it’s a talent problem. … I spoke to someone the other day; They call it the transition tax, which you pay on the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues, which has never been greater. And he only needs replays against the competition to remind himself how good he is again.”
Manager Scott Servais said more than once Friday that Kelenic needs to find a way to enjoy the game again. It’s not easy when the stakes are as high as Kelenic’s.
“He knows it’s crucial for him to be a big part of our offense for us to do well,” Servais said. “He wants to get it up and running as soon as possible. … That’s probably not going to happen here now. So let’s do what’s right for the player, which is what we’ve always strived for. And I think it’s right to step down now and he understands.
This is the second minor league relegation for Kelenic, who came back last year to record a promising September/October amid a playoff chase. He put up a .248/.331/.524 slash with five home runs and some big hits at key moments.
In spring training, Kelenic predicted his fights would be the best thing that ever happened to him in his career. He’s learned to process the ups and downs of a season and not let a slump throw him off track, he said.
“It’s about applying some of the things I learned from last year, the struggles I had, to this year because there’s no reason last year should happen this year,” Kelenic said in March . “Because if you do, it’s on me.”
Servais stressed that Kelenic is only 22 and the history of his career is nowhere near written, Hollander said there was no clear timeline for Kelenic’s return. But, needless to say, 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 while and he didn’t get any results,” Hollander said. “And I think that kind of manifested itself in looking for results a little bit and detaching from his process. He’s going to fall, he’s going to catch his breath. He will come up with a plan that works for him. In this he is confident. And I suspect when he’s ready, he’ll come back and be a really good player at that point.”
Despite the outcry over promoting Kelenic last year, the only logical retrospective conclusion is that he was rushed to the majors. Kelenic’s return to Tacoma is clearly the best thing for his development process and for the Mariners. Kelenic’s return as a closer version of the player the Mariners envisioned when they traded with the Mets would be a far better thing.