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Nothing burns like the cold: Jarred Kelenic is here for Mariners fans to dream on

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This kind of thing never goes sideways, right?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the Mike Zunino trade that left us wondering if the Mariners were headed for a hard rebuild, Jerry Dipoto reassured fans that this was a “re-imagining,” not a rebuild, hinting at upcoming moves but invoking the trifecta of Edwin Díaz, Mitch Haniger, and Marco Gonzales as players deemed close to untouchable by the “re-imagining.” Specifically, Dipoto said he’d need to be “blown away” by the offer in order to trade his young star closer.

Ah! Well. Nevertheless, apparently, nineteen-year-old Jarred Kelenic (Kell-eh-nick, can also sound like Kell-nick) can add “blows Jerry Dipoto away” to his swiftly-building resume. Shortly after the trade was announced, reports surfaced that the Mariners were willing to talk with the Mets about All-Star closer Edwin Diaz only if Kelenic was included.

So what is it about a teenage outfielder—one of the highest-risk categories of prospects, and thus a sharp detour from the safer, MLB-adjacent college players the Mariners have spent high draft picks on in Dipoto’s tenure—that caused Dipoto to veer so drastically from both his stated plan for this off-season and the types of players the Mariners have targeted under his regime?

There’s another thing that makes Kelenic even riskier as a prospect: he hails from Waukesha (Wahk-uh-sha), Wisconsin, not traditionally known as a baseball hotbed (other things you might know Waukesha for: healing spring waters that now contain radium; Cold War missile battery site; home of Les Paul and Les Paul’s guitar-shaped grave; the Slenderman stabbing; JJ Watt’s hometown). When the Mets took Kelenic sixth overall in last year’s draft, he became the highest draft choice born in Wisconsin since Augie Schmidt from Kenosha was taken second overall by the Blue Jays in 1982, and the highest-ever prep draft pick from the state.

Schmidt never made it to the majors; nor have any other players from Wisconsin drafted in the first round. Jordan Zimmerman and Pat Neshek are the only current MLB regulars born in Wisconsin (Pirates prospect Alex McRae did get 6.1 pro innings this year). There has been an influx of talent from the Badger State recently, however: Dodgers prospect (and good friend of Kelenic) Gavin Lux was drafted 20th overall in 2016, and if he can beat Kelenic to the majors he’ll carry the honor of being the first first-rounder drafted from a Wisconsin high school to make it to the majors. Other Wisconsin-born players drafted highly in recent years include Jeren Kendall, also a Dodger, taken out of Vanderbilt in the first round in 2017, and Ben Rortvedt, a prep catcher taken by the Twins in the second round in 2016.

Part of what is shifting the landscape of baseball in cold-weather states is the advent of new indoor training facilities, and one of the leaders in that industry in Wisconsin happens to be Jarred’s own father. Tom Kelenic is a general contractor who built an indoor complex on 70 acres of Wisconsin dairyland, and has stakes in several others nearby. These facilities allow cold-weather athletes to get just as many reps as their warm-weather counterparts, and that’s enabled his son to live a baseball-centered life from an early age.

Prior to the draft, Kelenic’s off-season routine involved two hours of work before school, and another two hours in the cage after. He skipped playing on his high school team, whose season didn’t start until May, to play on a more competitive travel team and with Team USA during the summer. In his senior year of high school, Kelenic opted to graduate early in order to focus on prepping for the draft all day, without the pesky interruption of things like classes and pep rallies and the other trappings of one’s senior year in high school.

Jarred Kelenic has one goal, one thing he’s working towards, and it’s not to make it to the bigs and make history as a player from Wisconsin; it’s not that he wants to be an All-Star or have a World Series ring. Kelenic wants to be a Hall-of-Famer. The rest of the stuff, he figures, will come along with the territory. “I simply just say that ever since I was really young, I’ve had the highest expectations possible,” Kelenic told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Note the date on this tweet from a fifteen-year-old Jarred:

Kelenic understandably draws high praise for his work ethic, mental makeup, and competitive spirit, but also for his complete set of tools. Fifteen-year-old Jarred might not have felt like he could achieve a perfect swing, but the one he has is pretty sweet:

(You can find the whole video at Prospect Pipeline.)

The word that gets used most often with Kelenic’s swing is “clean,” and it is. Kelenic’s swing is simple, compact, and fluid; “free and easy,” “balanced,” and “sweet” are also common descriptors. It’s a credit to the amount of work Kelenic has put in that virtually every swing looks identical. Watching Kelenic swing reminds me a little of watching Edgar swing, how the bat felt like an extension of his body, like it was more natural for Edgar to be swinging a baseball bat than to not be swinging one. So, too, is Kelenic’s work ethic reminiscent of Edgar’s, and the chip on his shoulder, also similar. As a cold-weather prep prospect, Kelenic has heard the doubters, and used that to fuel his drive:

“I don’t understand why people think we are misjudged because we have the facilities to play every day,” he said. We can get just as much work in as a kid from California or Florida. I took it for what it was worth and knew no one was going to outwork me.”

Kelenic names Bryce Harper as one of his favorite players, but beyond a similarly preternaturally burly pair of forearms, Kelenic’s level, line-drive swing doesn’t look all that much like Harper’s violent uppercut. They do both start in similar positions, hands held high by the ear with the bat behind the head, and both achieve plus bat speed with above-average shoulder/hip separation, leading to an explosive, quick swing that looks like firing a cannon sounds:

Kelenic’s swing has some natural loft which should lead to more power as he develops—he’s no behemoth at 6’1”/200, but has some relatively meaty thighs and the aforementioned burly forearms—but currently seems more built to spray the ball around with line drives. It’s not Bryce Harper, but Kelenic’s level, even swing is very similar to current NL MVP Christian Yelich’s:

The general consensus pre-draft was that Kelenic was one of the best pure hitters available in the draft, with phrases like “great feel for hitting” and “advanced approach” sprinkled across scouting reports. Kelenic combines his disciplined eye with an ability to make contact and hunt for pitches he can turn on all over the zone, which has caused some scouts to say that the swing can get a little long, although a low whiff rate would suggest that’s not a huge problem for him. Those who have seen Kelenic hit in person say the ball comes off his bat with a good deal of backspin and he can direct hits all over the field.

His minor-league spray chart so far shows some pull tendencies, but also a fair amount of power going in the other direction. When Kelenic was moved up from the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League (where he slugged .600), his pull percentage actually went down significantly (although it’s still around 50%), and his Oppo% increased to about a third.

Kelenic’s future profile is a point of contention, as is to be expected with a prep prospect, with scouts and analysts around the industry grading him from a 55 to 70, meaning he’s seen as likely to become anything from a slightly above-average starter to a perennial All-Star (and potential Hall-of-Famer, as is his wish). While most scouts concede Kelenic is a five-tool player, the general consensus is the power tool isn’t overwhelming, with Fangraphs putting an average (50) grade on its future value, although Kelenic did post ISOs of .196 in the GCL and .178 in the Appalachian League (which is like a more advanced version of rookie ball). In fact, he homered in his Appy League debut for the Kingsport Mets, made all the more impressive by the fact that Kelenic was literally playing under the bright lights regularly for the first time in his young career.

It looks like Kelenic has changed his stance slightly since being drafted by the Mets, widening it even more and putting more bend into his knees:

pre-draft (from Fangraphs)
with the Kingsport Mets (R+) (from 2080 Baseball)

The other thing to know about Kelenic is he’s a remarkably patient and disciplined hitter for someone so young and so hungry to prove himself. In fact, he walked more (11%) and struck out less (19.5%) after being promoted to Kingsport.

After a slow start in July as he adjusted to the level, Kelenic lit it up in August, slashing .321/.368/.509 to end the season, and he cut down his strikeouts (from 21 to 18) despite having 30 more ABs. Even when he was struggling to adjust to the higher level of competition in July, Kelenic still walked 16 times (almost 20%!), suggesting that his plate discipline will prop him up even when the offense sags. Kelenic has spoken about the importance of being a well-rounded player in order to see one through those bumps in the road, and the security of knowing that even if one tool isn’t there that day, you still have plenty to contribute to the team.

About those other tools, then. Kelenic flashes above-average 60-grade speed. He’s a smart runner who stole fifteen bases across his first 250 pro plate appearances and was only caught once. His speed also helps him out in the outfield and while there is some question about whether or not he’ll stick in center as a truly premium defensive center fielder, especially if he bulks up more, there is no doubt about his strong, accurate arm, which has been clocked at a velocity in the mid-90s and is seen as one of his best tools.

Kelenic also made one of the flashiest plays at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in 2017:

Calling a player “toolsy” can sometimes be a knock against them: the jack of all trades, master of none. Most analysts agree that the hit tool is Kelenic’s strongest, and potentially carrying, tool (a “carrying tool” is the thing a player does better than almost every other player, the thing that will get them to the majors). However, that’s not enough for the hyper-competitive Kelenic, who wants to be a true five-tool player in the vein of another cold-weather kid, Mike Trout. Now a Mariner, Kelenic will have an opportunity to be coached by some people who know cold weather: Scott Servais, from La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Andy McKay, who is not from Wisconsin but spent several years coaching the La Crosse Loggers in the Northwoods League. The Mariners are said to have been high on Kelenic before the draft not only because of his skillset but also his personality: humble Midwestern values and blended with a fiery competitiveness and a little chip on his cold-weather shoulder.

Kelenic is also a fit for the Mariners from a culture standpoint, as they attempt to build a new youth movement through the system. His leadership qualities were on display at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in 2017, when he was tapped for a roundtable of top prospects. Skip to the 20:00 mark here to listen to Kelenic talk about what separates good players from great players.

Trading home-grown superstar Edwin Díaz—the lone bright spot in the back end of an ultimately disappointing 2018 season—was a difficult choice. In Jarred Kelenic, the Mariners feel that they have a chance to have that kind of superstar-level talent again, this time in a position player. Having been traded not a year after he was drafted, Kelenic will have plenty of time to develop in the Mariners’ system, and if he succeeds as they think he will, it will be a win for many parties. First, for this beleaguered front office and player development system, to prove they can develop blue chip talent; next, for Kelenic himself, as he redefines the value of a “cold-weather prospect”; and finally, for a fanbase that has been starved for a home-grown superstar, that deserves a player to dream on. By all accounts, Jarred Kelenic is that player. Dream away.