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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: The Jarred Kelenic era never got off the ground for the Mariners

Jarred Kelenic, traded by the Mariners to the Braves on Sunday, looks on during a 2022 batting practice at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Major League Baseball has a stat to measure just about anything you can think of. Some would say too many.

WAR, BABIP, FIP, etc. It’s enough to infuriate, or at least irritate, the traditionalist.

One thing you can’t tangibly measure, however, is hype. It’s a feeling – an informed one – but a feeling nonetheless.

Well, at one point, I felt as if outfielder Jarred Kelenic was the most-hyped prospect the Mariners had since manager Scott Servais and president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto showed up eight years ago. Today? He might be the biggest disappointment over that stretch.

That isn’t a personal attack on Kelenic, who I hope succeeds in his next venture. He’s a 24-year-old kid who has been shouldering expectations from the moment he left high school.

But after he was traded to the Braves alongside Marco Gonzales and Evan White on Sunday night, it’s fair to reflect on his time in the M’s organization. It, quite simply, was an era that never was.

To be clear, nobody put Jarred on the same level as a No. 1 overall pick such as Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, who both seemed destined for baseball royalty from the moment they were drafted. Kelenic was selected No. 6 by the Mets in 2018 before being dealt to Seattle in December of that same year.

It wasn’t long, though, before he became the team’s top prospect and the No. 4 prospect in baseball by 2021.

This, of course, doesn’t always mean much. In few sports are organizations or pundits guessing more than they are in baseball.

Still, Kelenic’s shellacking of the minor-league competition suggested he was worthy of his ranking. He posted an OPS of .904 with three teams as he moved his way up through the farm system in 2019. And after the COVID year of 2020, which kept him off the field, he put up a whopping 1.016 OPS at Triple-A Tacoma in 2021.

By this point, he and Julio Rodriguez appeared to be the crown jewels of the Mariners’ rebuild. Never did it quite feel that way again.

Kelenic’s 93 games in the majors in 2021 epitomized underwhelming. He hit .181 while striking out 106 times in 337 at-bats. At one point, he was mired in a 0-for-39 slump.

He called his midseason demotion to the minors a “blessing in disguise” – but it seemed hard to spot that blessing through all that camouflage.

After all, the next year was even worse – with Kelenic batting .141 in 54 MLB games. Another demotion ensued, and an emotional wall seemed to form. At least with the media, it died.

My visit to Tacoma two Junes ago prompted Kelenic to say some version of trusting his “process” 14 times.

His response to struggling in two-strike situations, an area in which Servais said he needed to improve? “Anyone can improve in two strikes. I think it’s a pretty vague goal. I’m just out here again working on my process.”

Other scribes received similar responses. But hey, no harm done. If he thought proceeding that way was what was best for him, go for it.

This past season, for 21 magical games, the breakthrough the fan base had wanted seemed to occur. Through April 25, Kelenic was batting .342 and slugging .726. He reached that point after going 3 for 4 with a home run and a double in a 5-3 win over the Phillies.

Although a slight regression seemed inevitable, ending the year with a .253/.327/.419 slash line felt more like a true descent.

If there was one moment that encapsulates Kelenic’s frustration in Seattle, it came on July 19 after he broke his foot kicking a water cooler. A nine-pitch, ninth-inning strikeout came just moments before – and it would be nearly three months before he made it back onto the big-league field.

It’s unfortunate that this might be M’s fans’ most salient memory of the Wisconsin native, even if he did sprinkle in his share of highlights. Might it have ended up costing Seattle a playoff spot? You can’t give a definitive yes, but you can’t give a definitive no, either.

Maybe the pressure of coming up at the same time as Rodriguez – a two-time All-Star who won American League Rookie of the Year in 2022 – got to Kelenic. Maybe not being able to play in 2020 due to the pandemic stymied his development. Or maybe he simply isn’t the player scouts and fans hoped and thought he would be.

Let’s hope for Kelenic it isn’t that last one. But it certainly seemed to be the case during his time as a Mariner.