There’s no suspense here. If the top prospect in the Mariners system in our rankings wasn’t going to be Justus Sheffield or Julio Rodriguez, it was always going to be Jarred Kelenic. The former Mets 1st-round pick narrowly eked out the most 1st-overall spot in our ranking, earning seven No. 1 picks over Sheffield’s five. The jewel of the offseason’s most shocking trade earns this spot for his talent, his work ethic, and, in a bit of a Game Theory-sense, the statement of faith the organization has made in him.
Putting so much of your faith in a high school outfielder is a frightening proposition. Surely many of you interact with teens on a daily basis. Some of you may even be teens yourselves, in which case, whoops, sorry about the Adult ThemesTM. But teens produce the backbone of many baseball teams’ hopes and dreams, and now, with Julioooo and Jarred present, the Mariners are one such team. They’re far from the first, and yet what sets Kelenic apart, beyond his remarkable talent, is that he profiles differently than the typical prep outfielder.
In the past 10 years, 26 high school outfielders have been selected in the top-20 picks of the MLB draft. It’s an arbitrary cutoff, but it feels appropriate for focusing on the cream of the crop.
19 featured in at least one preseason Top-100 list in the year following their drafting, between Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus. 8/10 of those picked in the Top-10 made the cut, with only Austin Beck (‘17) and Delino DeShields (‘10) missing.
7 have made the Majors, and listed by bWAR from 6.9 to -0.9 they are recognizable names: Byron Buxton (‘12), Brandon Nimmo (‘11), Delino DeShields (‘10), Albert Almora (‘12), David Dahl (‘12), Austin Meadows (‘13), and Kyle Tucker (‘15).
5 have not played affiliated baseball since at least 2016: Donavan Tate (‘09), Jake Skole (‘10), Josh Sale (‘10), D.J. Davis (‘12), and Courtney Hawkins (‘12).
10 were drafted between 2016-2018, and hardly count at all for MLB expectations yet. 2015 is incredibly early too, for that matter, but Kyle Tucker had to go and make Garrett Whitley and Trent Grisham look bad by making the bigs last year.
1 is Alex Jackson, who has been turned back into a catcher!
Jarred Kelenic has plenty of company as a highly-regarded prep OF, and the historical record says we should be very skeptical of his ability to produce. High school bats sometimes turn into Andrew McCutchen or Kyle Tucker (I won’t say Mike Trout, because only Mike Trout turns into Mike Trout). More often they become Chevy Clarke or Mickey Moniak.
So what separates Waukesha, WI’s finest from the pack? It’s, well, everything. Kelenic draws rave reviews on his makeup and work ethic, to the point of standing out even to seasoned scouts. But what makes Kelenic a curious prospect profile is that the 19-year-old profiles more like a stereotypical college outfielder than he does a prep. But while that could be seen as damning with faint praise, it is meant with admiration. Kelenic’s greatest flaw is seemingly that he’s equally good at everything.
Often, top prep OFs fall into a few categories: Multi-Sport Athlete, Carrying Skill Guys, and Projectable. The Multi-Sport Athletes are common draws - players like Bubba Starling (‘11), Jordyn Adams (‘17), and Donavan Tate are tantalizing talents, who can blossom with refinement and focus. The learning curve can be steep, however, and as two of those three learned the hard way. A Carrying Skill can be great as well, and players like Alex Kirilloff (‘16), Courtney Hawkins, and Will Benson (‘16) enticed scouts with light-tower power. Kirilloff has blossomed into a top prospect, and the jury is out on Benson, but Hawkins struggled to make contact and moved to Indy ball in 2018. Projectability is what brought Austin Meadows, Byron Buxton, and Jo Adell to the top of draft boards, and what’s made them all tantalizing prospects with mixtures of success and uncertainty ahead.
Jarred Kelenic’s best skill, by MLB Pipeline’s evaluation, is his arm. FanGraphs agrees, with both sites placing a 60 grade on it. His hit-tool also receives a 60 potential projection from both places, with his power receiving a 50-55 potential. The speed and fielding each also grade at 50-55: somewhere between average and a shade above.
It’s a combination that suggests a player with few holes in their game. Where the 6’1, 200 lbs Kelenic is demerited, it is that he is already filled out physically, too close to a potential physical ceiling to grow further due to a lifelong dedication to fitness and strength training. When it comes to critiquing Kelenic, the argument is literally “too much weight room”.
But sometimes the weight room pays off, and the Wisconsin kid has showcased power that wowed Jerry Dipoto and his entire scouting staff when Kelenic visited Safeco Field before the draft. He also did this during a high-school home run derby among the best preps in the nation:
Kelenic’s profile leads with “high-floor” in a way 19-year-olds rarely do. As Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs recently noted, the combination of a wide breadth of skills and an extraordinary work ethic means Kelenic has a higher chance than most of “reaching potential earlier” and is also “more likely to reach [his] ultimate upside”.
For the Mariners, both of those points are paramount, so recognizing what that ‘ultimate upside’ is will determine Kelenic’s future impact. Seattle thought they saw a 70-grade talent: a true future star with five-tools and the drive to make the most of them. Some scouts we’ve heard from agreed, and the word is the Mariners were one of a number of teams that felt Kelenic was the best bat in the draft.
Kelenic’s most common comp has been Brandon Nimmo (‘11), though his detractors point to Nick Plummer (‘15), both taken in the top-25 out of cold-weather states with a wide-breadth of tools, lacking a calling card. But Plummer’s arm was lacking, as was his polish, and Nimmo’s bat took second-billing to his plate discipline, whereas Kelenic seems to offer impact with his contact alongside an advanced approach. Players like Nimmo have long been slightly undervalued, as the lack of a standout tool can make a player underwhelm, even as their production is greater than the sum of their parts. We’re better now at evaluating “tweener” players, and one of WAR’s greatest assets is the way it reminds us not to overlook guys like Nimmo, Michael Brantley or Mitch Haniger, who can often be regarded as “good, yes, fine” but provide value in every facet. If Kelenic grows into that sort of overlooked star, there would be no complaints to be found.
Kelenic tore up rookie level ball after being drafted, but it’s difficult to track how he’s changed since draft day. The existing film of Kelenic is limited to pre-draft scouting, batting practice clips, and his own YouTube channel. As Editor Emeritus Isabelle Minasian remarked recently, Kelenic is the first high-profile Mariners prospect to be fully part of the YouTube/Vine/Twitch generation. Both Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez have a familiarity with engaging on platforms in ways prospects never have before. Teams no longer need to be their players’ own hype machines: the players can do it themselves.
Sometimes that means Goat Yoga. See you in West Virginia, Jarred.