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Larry Stone: With Jarred Kelenic’s ire toward Mariners raised, scrutiny over his opening-day status is further elevated

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 26, 2021

Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic catches a ball during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Peoria, Ariz.   (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic catches a ball during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Peoria, Ariz.  (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In one of his final acts as Seattle Mariners CEO and president, Kevin Mather’s recent remarks to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club were shocking in the sheer scope of aggrieved people it left in its wake.

Now we’re starting to see specifically how it tangibly affected the recipients of his career-killing candor.

Exhibit A happens to be one of the blue-chip prospects in the Mariners’ organization, 21-year-old Jarred Kelenic, who is filled with all kinds of righteous indignation right now.

As was made clear in an explosive interview with USA Today, Kelenic and his agent, Brodie Scoffield, already felt the Mariners were punishing him for refusing to sign a long-term contract before the 2020 season. Now they can point to Mather’s words as a smoking gun that proves the service-time manipulation they’ve suspected all along.

When speaking of Kelenic and other prospects at the Mariners’ summer camp last year, Mather said: “We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service-time clock.” Mather also said Kelenic would not be on this year’s opening-day roster and would be at “probably Triple-A Tacoma for a month.”

That puts the Mariners in a real bind, on multiple levels. The first one is obvious: You don’t want the player you’ve touted as one of the saviors for your promised renaissance to be boiling with resentment at the outset of his big league career.

That actually seemed to have been the case long before Mather accepted the Rotary engagement. It dates to the Mariners’ refusal to call up Kelenic last season, when he felt capable of helping a team that incongruously found itself in a tight playoff race in the final few weeks of the season.

But the ire has definitely kicked up a few levels since Sunday, when Mather’s speech became widely known. So that’s one more fire that needs to be put out, or at least reduced to a controlled burn, by general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais.

Much more delicate, and much more crucial, will be how the Mariners handle their decision on Kelenic’s placement at the start of the 2021 season. That call has now been elevated, courtesy of Mather, to the most heavily scrutinized roster decision in recent history.

We’ll get back to that in a moment, but a quick word here about the broader issue of “service-time manipulation” in baseball. This is something MLB and the Players Association must address in the next collective bargaining agreement. It is patently absurd that a system exists in which teams are deincentivized from playing their best players when they are ready for the majors. You don’t see that in any other sport, a situation in which teams have motivation to, at least temporarily, field less than their best squads.

It’s not fair to anyone, especially fans. And yet in baseball you see it nearly every year – budding young superstars held in the minors just long enough to either push their free-agent eligibility back a full season, or keep them from earning salary arbitration earlier.

Because of the collectively bargained means of determining free agency, teams have a keen motivation to delay starting the service-time clock of their players. I’ll try to keep it simple, and also completely avoid the complicated “Super 2” arbitration system for purposes of this discussion. Here goes:

Players become free agents after six years of service time. Each MLB season consists of 187 days, but a player needs to spend just 172 days on either the active roster or injured list to qualify for a full year of service time. It is that 15-day gap between the two numbers that causes the problem. Teams have realized that if they can find a way to delay the start of the clock by at least 16 days, voilà, the player will not get a year of service time – even if he spends 171 days in the majors. That pushes his eligibility for free agency back a full season, thus delaying his full earning power and ensuring he will be under team control an entire extra season.

It’s a nod-and-wink game that has been played for years, with teams coming up with baseball reasons for sending players to the minors to disguise the actual reason. And then, miraculously, the player is deemed ready for the majors in mid-April, just in time to burn a year of service.

Here are some prominent examples: In 2018, Ronald Acuna of the Braves came up on April 25 and had 159 days of service time that season; in 2008, Evan Longoria of the Rays came up April 12 and had 170 days; in 2012, Bryce Harper of the Nationals came up April 28 and had 159 days; in 2014 George Springer of the Astros came up April 16 and had 166 days.

The most notorious case is the Cubs’ Kris Bryant in 2015. A former No. 1 overall draft pick, Bryant tore up the minors in 2014, then hit .425 with nine homers in 14 spring training games in 2015. Yet he was still sent to the minors by the Cubs, ostensibly to “work on his defense.” Bryant was called up April 17, just in time to get 171 days of service time that year – one day short of qualifying for a full season.

The MLBPA and Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, filed a grievance claiming service-time manipulation and claiming the Cubs had acted in bad faith. He lost the grievance, and thus was unable to become a free agent after the 2020 season. Bryant remains the Cubs’ property for one more year.

And therein lies the rub. It is tremendously beneficial for teams to hold players back in this way.

By not playing Kelenic in a 60-game 2020 season shortened by COVID-19 and sending him down to the minors until mid-April this year, they would have control of the potential superstar through 2027, instead of 2025. And if he’s the player the Mariners think he’s going to be, fans will be thankful for it.

That’s why the format for determining service time must be changed, as Boras told Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker this week – to remove that temptation. There have been innumerable proposals for doing so, including Boras’ idea to use an independent panel to review promotion decisions that impact service time. Others include lessening the number of days needed to accrue a full season; making free agency based on age, not service time; and instituting a system of restricted free agency as in the NHL and NFL.

But problematic as it is, the current system is in place, and now the world will be watching how the Mariners deal with it. Dipoto makes a strong and reasonable case for why a player who is 21 years old with just 92 plate appearances above Single-A (all in Double-A in 2019) would need more seasoning.

The Cubs’ Theo Epstein won his case with Bryant by presenting the baseball argument for holding down the third baseman to the satisfaction of the arbitrator. If manipulation so seemingly blatant could be overlooked, it set a strong precedent for management to pretty much do what it wants regarding service time.

In his ruling, which was obtained by the Associated Press, arbitrator Mark Irvings wrote, “The (Players) Association was not able to produce memos, emails or texts from Epstein to show he had a nefarious motive at variance with his public comments.”

Cue Scoffield and the Players Association salivating over the video of Mather, in flesh and blood, detailing what could be construed as a plan to manipulate Kelenic’s service time, should the Mariners not put him on the opening-day roster.

The Mariners can continue to say Mather’s viewpoint didn’t reflect that of baseball operations – but he was the president and CEO, with authority over baseball ops.

This will become particularly nettlesome for the Mariners if Kelenic has a torrid camp and hits well in the Cactus League, of which he is entirely capable. He’s certainly motivated to do so. With all eyes upon them, could they really send Kelenic down for three weeks or a month, even if they could provide justification in the fact he missed an entire minor league season and has never faced even Triple-A pitching? The outcry by Kelenic’s camp would be deafening.

That is one of many dilemmas Mather left them, one that already is coming home to roost.

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