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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Jarred Kelenic’s rocky road to September success will help him, and the Mariners, in the long run

Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic watches the path of his two-run home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the ninth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic watches the path of his two-run home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the ninth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
Larry Stone Seattle Times

It’s hard to imagine a more whirlwind rookie season than Jarred Kelenic has had. And the good news for the Mariners is that Kelenic appears to have weathered the storm — which was severe at times — to the point that it’s once again easy to envision greatness ahead. That notion had wavered during the darkest moments of Kelenic’s season.

Indeed, I questioned at times whether it was in the Mariners’ long-term interest (or Kelenic’s, for that matter) to keep throwing him out in center field night after night during the stretch drive. He was enduring struggles that seemed to be visibly wearing on him; you could see the strain on Kelenic’s face when the camera zoomed in on him during what seemed to be a perpetual 0-2 count at the plate. It was fair to wonder whether his confidence — a Kelenic calling card — would be dented.

An even more fraught question was whether it was in the Mariners’ short-term interest to keep Kelenic in the lineup, given that the ballclub unexpectedly found itself with a fighting chance for a playoff berth. No need to remind anyone how long it has been, or how symbolically important it would be to the organization and its fan base, to attain even the second American League wild-card spot.

It seemed indisputable that Kelenic’s everyday playing status was not advancing that cause. Kelenic’s batting average, hovering much of the time in the .150s and .160s, remains the worst in the majors among players with 300 or more at-bats. At one point in September, Kelenic’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as calculated by Baseball Reference was -2.9, the second-worst in the majors (behind only Hunter Dozier of the Royals). That essentially means that judged by that metric, Kelenic’s presence had cost the Mariners’ three victories, which approximates the margin they have trailed in the wild-card race.

FanGraphs, which calculates WAR using a different formula, has Kelenic ranked 1,453rd out of 1,476 eligible position players and pitchers at -0.7. The only players with more plate appearances than Kelenic who are lower on the list are Cody Bellinger, a former MVP, and Gregory Polanco, who was released by the Pirates three weeks ago. That’s a reflection of not just Kelenic’s hitting woes, but his defensive struggles as well.

Yet the Mariners stuck with Kelenic, and he has rewarded them with his hottest stretch of the year. Kelenic in September has been a highly productive player who is contributing positively to their extremely longshot hopes of stealing a playoff berth. On this do-or-die road trip, Kelenic has had a major hand in three of their four victories. Entering Wednesday Kelenic was slashing .266/.329/.609 with six homers and 15 RBI in 18 September games. That’s the kind of production the Mariners anticipate from Kelenic for years to come.

Let’s face it: It was always an extreme longshot for the Mariners to make the playoffs. There’s a reason the analytically calculated playoff odds had the Mariners hovering around 5% even when they were surging within a game of the second wild-card spot. They sat at 1.5% entering Wednesday, even after winning consecutive games at Oakland.

Which is why I have come to believe the Mariners did the right thing by letting Kelenic play his way out of his slump. Benching him would have left him to stew all winter about his place on the team, if not his worthiness as a major-leaguer. At age 22, that’s a lot of heady stuff to deal with. Now Kelenic can go into 2022, a season that will bring realistically high expectations for the Mariners — playoffs or bust — with the knowledge that he can thrive in the big leagues. And a road map for him to get out of inevitable downswings.

That’s not to say there isn’t much for Kelenic to attack this winter, mechanically and otherwise. But I think it will ultimately be good that he was humbled to the extent he was, as Kelenic himself acknowledged when he was sent back to the minors in June. To answer an earlier question, I don’t think the struggles will dent Kelenic’s confidence in the slightest; but it might enhance his perspective, in a good way. What the Mariners don’t want is for Kelenic to lose the edge with which he plays; when he’s thriving in the major leagues, that competitiveness and intensity will serve them well, rather than appear to be a burden as it often has this year.

This year began, of course, with the angst and outrage in February over then-CEO Kevin Mather’s Bellevue Rotary Club remarks, when he stated definitively that Kelenic would spend the first month of the season in Tacoma. That put Kelenic smack-dab in the center of a debate over service-time manipulation that threatened to sully his relationship with the ballclub before his major-league career had even begun.

Kelenic indeed started in Tacoma, and spent exactly five games there before word leaked that he was coming up to Seattle. His arrival (accompanied by rookie pitcher Logan Gilbert) was greeted with the expected fanfare, as if Kelenic was a conquering hero summoned to save the Mariners’ season.

It didn’t work out that way. After a splashy second game in which he had a home run and two doubles against Cleveland, Kelenic soon became mired in a brutal 0-for-39 slump that dropped his average to .096 when he was demoted to Tacoma on June 7. Kelenic returned to Seattle on his 22nd birthday, July 16, and has slowly (excruciatingly so at times) pulled his average up since.

Kelenic has been the subject of considerable second-guessing this year. Should he have made the opening-day roster? Should he have spent more time in Triple-A before being called up either the first or second time? Should general manager Jerry Dipoto have provided more center-field options as an alternative to Kelenic? Should manager Scott Servais have stuck with him as the team fought for a playoff spot?

While I once gave a lot of credence to the latter question in particular, now I think that the path Kelenic has taken, difficult as it was, will prove to be the best one for both him and the organization.

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