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LL Roundtable: to call up Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic, Yea or Nay?

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Hang on a second I can’t find the Talking Stick

Seattle Mariners Summer Workouts Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Mere moments after the Mariners’ thrilling victory against the A’s the other day, the two teams trudged back out to the field for the second game of the doubleheader and the Mariners played...whatever the exact opposite of Game 1 was. We got introduced to the Jimmy Yacabonis Experience, and shortly after, the Seth Frankoff Experience, and it was not a pleasant experience. This led to a lot of fans on Twitter and we assume elsewhere hollering about a Logan Gilbert call-up, thanks in no small part to a weird and unfunny joke made by Scott Servais:

Because calling up your top pitching prospect when one game out of contention is...a laughable idea?

We had some spirited debate about it here among the staff, fueled in no small part by the unpleasant experience of watching Jimmy Yacabonis struggle to throw strikes while the Mariners batters struggled to get two hits off the A’s pitching staff. Those arguments only pitched up in tenor during the game last night, when Mariners pitching gave up something like a billion runs in the first two innings, do not fact check us on that. Meanwhile, the Mariners bats fell flat for the second game in a row, and once again we saw an infielder valiantly try to play left field under a torrential rain of baseballs. Wouldn’t it be nice, some of us opined, to have a couple top prospects out there instead? At which point others snapped their jaws and teeth and some merely yawned. After the dust settled, here is what was left on the stone tablets of the sLLack:

ZACH: Gilbert NAY, Kelenic NAY

I’m not just saying this to be the devil’s advocate: calling up Logan Gilbert while one game out of contention is a laughable idea. There’s more of a case for Kelenic, but there are a few core points to be made against calling either of them up.

Point the first: What do the Mariners stand to lose? It’s fairly obvious. Calling them up now means you have to wait that much longer to call them up next year if you don’t want to lose a year of control. I don’t buy into the argument that calling them up early could hinder their development, but the control is a very real cost. And yeah, gaming service time sucks for the players, but until there’s a better system in place the Mariners would be shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it.

Point the second: What do the Mariners stand to gain? Not much. FanGraphs gives them a 4% chance at the postseason as of 5:00 PM PST on 9/15/20. Fivethirtyeight gives them a 7% chance. Even if they do make the postseason, they’d have a roughly 1-in-16 chance of actually winning the World Series (and that assumes that they’re on the same level as the other teams in the postseason. Which they aren’t.) Put it together, and any way you look at it: there’s less than a 0.5% chance of this team winning the World Series. The value just isn’t there.

Point the third: It isn’t obvious that Kelenic and Gilbert would even significantly improve the Mariners right now. I totally get that Mariners fans have visions of a Juan Soto-like surge from Kelenic. He’s hit at every level. But his ~130 wRC+ between high A and double-A isn’t as overwhelming as Soto’s ~200 wRC+ at the same levels. Is it likely that he’d be better than José Marmolejos? Probably. Phil Ervin? Definitely. A full win better, over fewer than 15 games? Sure, if you believe Kelenic is a 10-win player right now. The argument against Gilbert is the same. Could he give you a few innings of a higher quality than Ljay Newsome or Nick Margevicius? Almost certainly. Enough to tip the scales? It’s not obvious, and when the benefit is so marginal, it would have to be capital-O Obvious.

TIM: Gilbert YEA

I got your capital-O Obvious right here. The other night I watched the Mariners, fresh off a magical comeback against one of the best teams in baseball, having reached a single game back from playoff position, put up Jimmy Yacabonis, Seth Frankoff, and Brady Lail to pitch a full abbreviated game for the Mariners. Logan Gilbert blasted through three levels of the minors last year, and his 2.87 FIP in AA Arkansas was better than any FIP Brady Lail put up in a full season since his rookie ball stint in 2013. You don’t need to have Logan spend the rest of the year in Seattle. I get the service time issues and that that would hold him back significantly (40 days, give or take, in addition to the 15 days that we can take for granted already thanks to the way every MLB club does business) in a 2021 season where the Mariners look primed to make even a little more noise than they’d make this year. But the Mariners could have given Logan Gilbert a taste of big-league experience last night, could have done it with effectively zero long-term impact, and could have given Logan a reward for being a Company Man ™ to date and for grinding through mono and the low minors in an incredibly fast time. Beyond that, he’d get a full taste of what it was like to face the big leagues to carry him into the 2021 offseason and prepare for a year in Seattle’s rotation.

Now, it’s taken for granted here that Logan Gilbert hasn’t regressed in Tacoma—I don’t know that that’s the case. But consider this: Yesterday in their second game, the Mariners threw up three pitchers who put up a combined 8.92 FIP. In the worst case, Logan Gilbert gets rocked and we end up exactly where we already are. Best case? The team manages to pull out a game yesterday on the back of a solid start from Logan and they’re now 0.5 back instead of 1.5 back.

The Mariners don’t need to pull out every stop to win this year. But they could have pulled out a stop that cost them effectively nothing last night and they chose not to do so, to the detriment of the MLB club. That’s disappointing.

JOHN: Gilbert YEA, Kelenic yea

Tim has hit most of my points for me. If Gilbert is in a position where one bad big league start could derail his development significantly, the Mariners need a severe house cleaning in their much-ballyhooed mental skills development group. There’s value in not calling up a guy like Gilbert until you know he’ll be up for good, but there’s plenty of other ways a contained, spot start call-up could be valuable for the present Mariners as well as Gilbert developmentally. That’s what Seattle could have done in their doubleheader on Monday, with something combining a small reward for focusing at the alternate site in a season that should’ve seen him debut months ago and giving the M’s a low-risk, high-reward shot for their top pitching prospect to test his mettle against big league talent. In the event Gilbert gets shelled, it’s hardly a death knell for his future prospects, and an easy justification for the club to start him in the minors early 2021 to keep control of his employment options for an extra year. Unless there’s something specific Gilbert has been struggling with significantly, there’s not much to make me think he’s a downgrade from the players Seattle chose instead this week.

As for Kelenic, at this point, it’s a bit more take-it-or-leave-it. A single start for a pitcher is a far lesser commitment and fairer package of time to less than two weeks of a position player. For Kelenic specifically, there could be value in giving him a shot at actual competition instead of testing him every so often when Gilbert or Art Warren take the ball in Cheney Stadium. But 40 PAs isn’t the same sort of controlled environment Gilbert could receive, and I can understand more heavily the desire to call up Kelenic once, and not have to play the ridiculous game of justifying sending him down again as Seattle would likely try to do. Still, the M’s spent so much time trying to build the group that spent the second half of last year in Arkansas as “The Group” to break the playoff drought and push the M’s into contention. The players have held up their end of the bargain, the front office should recognize this opportunity as a low-risk first test and do the same. Seattle doesn’t have a legacy of organizational success, long-venerated coaches, or an array of veterans to give their developmental process credibility among their players. All they have is their word, which has helped them improve several players who bought in. But how long does that buy-in last if the front office won’t commit to the players who have committed to them?

KATE: Gilbert NAY, Kelenic YEA

First and foremost, I want to make it clear here that neither of my answers care about playoffs, or gaming service time, or anything. I am speaking strictly from a developmental perspective and what I think is best for the player, not the team or the org or anything else, at this moment in time. Here is my caveat on Gilbert: if he still has not developed a consistent out pitch, leave him in Tacoma for now. What I saw from watching Logan Gilbert closely last year was a young pitcher with a tantalizing array of pitches who steamrollered the competition in the Sally League using only his fastball, who then had to adjust when he moved into the California League and batters were not as tempted by his off-speed offerings. However, as a seasoned college pitcher, when in trouble, Gilbert could still reliably mow down his younger/less-experienced Cal League Colleagues with his fastball. He also threw enough good secondaries to batters not experienced with plus breaking stuff that he could pretty reliably outwit most batters who came his way—although he would occasionally get into protracted battles if he couldn’t put a hitter away in the first half-dozen or so pitches. The same was true when Gilbert went to Double-A, except now his fastball was on the lower end of the radar gun for Texas League pitching prospects, and he was running into even more seasoned batters who battled him even more extensively. His pitches were less efficient than they’d been in the California League, too, as he threw a lower ratio of strikes to balls. I’m a big Gilbert believer, but I think he needed this year to gain experience against advanced hitters without being steamrollered by having to face Alex Bregman, Mike Trout, and company, and I doubt seeing Austin Shenton and Donovan Walton one hundred times is going to do the trick. I don’t think Gilbert is a shrinking violent who will go crying back to Apokoko or Okapi or Poughkeepsie or whatever town in Florida he’s from if he gets kicked around at the major league level, but I also don’t think it’s smart to send him into battle missing a pretty key weapon in his arsenal. Again, all of this changes if Gilbert has developed consistency on landing his slider or a more dastardly shape on his changeup. My kingdom for an actual baseball analyst in regular attendance at the alternate site. But hey, here’s some more footage of Jarred Kelenic hitting bombs!

Speaking of which, with Kelenic, I say call him up, yesterday. Having watched Kelenic progress through three levels of the minors last year, I feel confident in saying I think he would continue to adjust and improve at the major-league level, because I saw him in near-real-time make those adjustments last year. It was one of the more rewarding baseball-watching experiences I’ve ever had, like seeing time-lapse photography except instead of a plant unfurling new leaves it was a hitter blossoming into ever-more advanced versions of himself. Kelenic has been working on his swing twenty-five hours a day since he was in utero; the swing is a finished product, like Edgar’s, honed to perfection. What he needs is challenging at-bats, and as much as I love our crew of pitchers and believe in their potential, he’s not getting that regularly at Tacoma. Kelenic needs to be facing the Dustin Mays and Casey Mizes and Brady Singers, and not only are those guys not in our organization, they’re in the majors. Will Kelenic get blown up by the Justin Verlanders and Jesús Luzardos and crafty vets of MLB? Almost assuredly. But he won’t get ground down by it, because Jarred Kelenic believes he deserves to be right up there with them, and he knows what he needs to do to get himself back on track when things go sideways. Also, and this is not strictly about Kelenic’s development, but give the fans who have suffered so much, and seen so much bad baseball, and bought in on this whole rebuild and still faithfully shovel money onto the corner of Edgar and Dave every damn year, a tiny taste of the future you’ve been promising for the better part of two years. #LetJarredCook?

JOE: Meh

Despite the playoff push, I’m really rather lukewarm on the idea of bringing up either one of Kelenic or Gilbert. It’s been well-scribed. Yes, on one hand you want to throw all your chips on the table for the playoffs. That however, does not guarantee a thing.

On the other side of the coin, bringing up Kelenic and Gilbert and burning a year of controllability isn’t how this rebuild was ever meant to go. Worse still, promoting the kids now might encourage the front office to keep both guys in Tacoma until early June next year to achieve that same controllability, For me, that’s a worst-case scenario.

Follow the plan, Trust The Process™, yada yada yada… I’m in favor of doing what the front office deems right. I’m not sure Kelenic/Gilbert gets you the additional three wins you’d need anyway to get over the hump in 2020. All hands on deck for 2021.