Barring the unforeseen, Jarred Kelenic will take the field as a Major Leaguer soon. There's no exact date and, considering he's played all of 21 games above Class A Advanced, it assuredly won't be Opening Day. But when the day comes for Kelenic and the Mariners, and it will, step
Barring the unforeseen, Jarred Kelenic will take the field as a Major Leaguer soon. There's no exact date and, considering he's played all of 21 games above Class A Advanced, it assuredly won't be Opening Day. But when the day comes for Kelenic and the Mariners, and it will, step one of the slugger's meteoric rise will be complete.
His anticipated success won't come as a surprise. Seattle's top prospect doesn't fall into the category of the unforeseen who burst from the lower rounds of the Draft to stardom. Labeled by some as the best high school hitter in the 2018 Draft, the outfielder went sixth overall to the Mets ... and almost just as quickly became something more than a future star who prospect-rabid fans cling to.
Dec. 3, 2018 could become a red-letter day for Kelenic and two organizations in opposite leagues and on opposite coasts. Then again, it might prove to be nothing more than any other day. For now, however, that day represents the moment an ambitious and confident 18-year-old became a cause celebre for Mets fans and a potential franchise cornerstone for the Mariners.
Kelenic attended Waukesha West High School in Wisconsin ... where he didn't play baseball. Because the baseball season didn't begin until May, MLB.com's No. 12 overall prospect made the decision to hone his skills playing summer travel ball and with USA Baseball. He played for Team USA's under-18 squad in 2016 and 2017, leading the club to a gold medal at the 2016 Pan American Games. He was named tournament MVP after batting .407/.500/.741 with five extra-base hits and seven RBIs in eight games.
Set to graduate in 2018 and armed with a commitment to play at the University of Louisville, Kelenic worked out for numerous clubs prior to the Draft, including the Mariners. The Mets made him their highest Draft pick in 14 years that June and he was off and running in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and with Rookie Advanced Kingsport. Kelenic combined to bat .286/.371/.468 with 22 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 56 games.
Then came Dec. 3, 2018.
The deal was a throwback, a nod to trades of yesteryear that often involved numerous pieces. All told, seven players were involved, with Edwin Diaz and Robinson Canó -- who've combined for nine All-Star appearances -- headlining the package on New York's end. In that moment, Kelenic became the Emerald City's best hope for the future while the Big Apple lamented one who got away, even if his pro career was barely two months old.
Mariners director of player development Andy McKay couldn't have been more thrilled with the return. In addition to Kelenic, Seattle nabbed No. 7 prospect Justin Dunn, who posted a 2.70 ERA in four Major League starts last season, as well as hard-throwing reliever Gerson Bautista.
"I wasn't there for Jarred's pre-Draft workout, so I just know what I was told," McKay said. I do know that he has exceeded all expectations with us. He did everything and more, especially for a 19-year-old. We saw all five tools, he moved across three [Minor League] levels and his makeup ... wow. It's real -- that's the best way to describe it."
A trade can be disconcerting for even the most veteran of players but coming toward the beginning of the offseason afforded Kelenic some time to adapt and ready himself. The outfielder had little trouble adjusting to his new surroundings and sped through three Minor League levels in 2019. He finished the season with Double-A Arkansas, six weeks after celebrating his 20th birthday.
In the span of 15 months, Kelenic went from a high school graduate to one step below the Minors' highest level.
He batted .291/.364/.540 with 59 extra-base hits, including 23 homers, 68 RBIs, 80 runs scored and 20 stolen bases in 117 games. The lefty with the sweet swing went hitless in three consecutive games just once -- from April 8-10 -- and followed that with a career-high 18-game hitting streak.
"It was a heck of a season, but at the same time, that's what I expected out of myself," Kelenic told MLB.com last October. "I had goals set out that I was going to have a 20/20 season before the year even started. So for me, that's what I expect out of myself. Next season is going to be a little bit different."
Playing his first full season allowed him to post a number of firsts, including his first four-hit effort on April 16 and first multi-homer game on April 27, both with Class A West Virginia. He continued to rake after a promotion to Class A Advanced Modesto, homering in his first game with the Nuts.
"His confidence is off the charts," McKay said. "It's not fake. He's not out there trying to put on a show with his attitude. It's just how he is."
Jarred Kelenic reached Double-A during his first full season in 2019. (Mark Wagner/Arkansas Travelers)
That bravado is one thing McKay points to when discussing what sets Kelenic apart. In turn, it's provided the youngster with a work ethic that's impressive for a veteran, let alone someone entering his second full season.
"It all starts with his preparation," McKay said. "His regimen and the way he takes care of his body is so important to him. I would say nine out of 10 young hitters talk about wanting the perfect swing. Jarred doesn't do that. It's about keeping his body in peak physical shape and that in turn gives him the confidence he feeds off. He's so mentally tough."
Kelenic echoed those sentiments last fall.
"Really, it comes down to the mental side," he told MLB.com. "I think my talent is what it is and it's just fine-tuning things, being more consistent. For me, it's just when stuff doesn't go my way, being able to turn the page and move on to the next one. Because at the big league level, you can't afford to dwell on stuff or you're not going to live up [there]."
Expectations and pressure come with the territory for a first-round Draft pick, particularly a top-10 selection like Kelenic. What he couldn't have foreseen was being traded so soon and what it meant off the field. Suddenly, Kelenic's name was thrown into the realm of other regrettable deals in Mets history, headlined by baseball's all-time strikeout king and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
Even after spending nearly half a season with his new organization Kelenic admitted last summer to being shocked by the trade. However, time and his drive to become the a new face of Major League baseball has put the deal further in the rearview mirror.
"I've never spoken with him about anything relating to that," McKay said. "He's not out there trying to prove anyone wrong or right. He knows we believe in him and how we view him. He's far more focused on putting together good at-bats and competing than wondering about how his former team or its fans perceive him."
Kelenic's success in 2019 earned him the Ken Griffey Jr. Hitter of the Year Award, the top honor among Mariners Minor League position players. He took part in the last year's All-Star Futures Game and appeared in three contests for Peoria in the Arizona Fall League before a minor back issue ended his year.
"For next season, I'm really focusing on coming into Spring Training and playing as hard as I can, and at some point I want to be in the big leagues next year," Kelenic told MLB.com. "Obviously, it's not up to me. But at the same time, all I can control is going out and playing as hard as I can every single day and the rest will take care of itself."
Facing the near-certainty of a Major League debut, Kelenic has taken the lessons learned from both the Mets and Mariners and applied them to his game. Different organizations mean different philosophies, but it's all contributed to a supersonic journey that began less than two years ago for a player many believe will be a star.
McKay leaves that type of talk to pundits and fans. Seattle knows what it has in Kelenic, but it doesn't alter its developmental plan.
"Last spring was our first time seeing him and Spring Training isn't he greatest time to evaluate players. We never had any conversation about him going anywhere other than to the South Atlantic League," McKay said. "We had no blueprint for how we'd proceed from there. Making set plans can be a very dangerous thing to do in player development."
Major League Baseball has chewed up and spit out many a promising prospect, some more celebrated than Kelenic. However, as McKay notes, there's something different about the 6-foot, 196-pounder. Forget the five-tool potential, the prodigious power or the noteworthy confidence. Some players have that "it" factor and Kelenic falls into that category. He just needs more experience.
"We want to see consistency in his performance," McKay said of his 2020 hopes for Kelenic. "He doesn't have a lot of reps in the upper levels and there is nothing we can do to speed that up. He can't get 100 at-bats any quicker than simply going out and getting 100 at-bats. We want to see him fall into a funk, struggle and then get himself out of it. It's all part of the process."
Entering his second season with the Mariners, Kelenic has an outside chance of making his Major League debut this summer. Would that constitute a win for McKay and the team?
"We were obviously excited to get someone of Jarred's talent, but we gave up two pretty good players. We don't look at any trade as a win-or-lose proposition. Nothing can be judged or evaluated so soon after a deal is completed," he said. "We're doing the best we can in the moment for our team and, right now, we're very happy with what we got in return."
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.