I’m going to put it up top. If your perspective on this season is predicated on the a lack of investment in its validity due to its brevity, imbalance, and expanded playoffs, then you, like Betteridge, have your answer and could’ve saved a click. I won’t even argue - part of my enjoyment has been predicated on a detachment, knowing the Mariners were among a few lowly clubs sure to scuffle under the NBA/NHL-size playoff parameters. It was reassuring, viewing 2020 as a developmental stage, unsatisfying as a sample size but at least marginally valuable.
Instead, it is Wednesday, September 9th, and the Mariners are 2.0 games out of a playoff spot (and 2.5 games out of another). Oops! Oops, oops, oops. Instead of a smattering of veterans and young guys dragged down by inconsistency, it’s been a group of consistently impressive youths and olds threatening .500 in spite of an almost entirely unproven reputation, a lineup halfway turned over at the deadline, and a bullpen that has a Rule-5 pick, a converted starter with a >5.00 ERA and FIP in AAA in 2019, a guy who averages <90 mph on his fastball, and a dude pitching through a literal bone tumor in his spine as its “high leverage” options. Bronx Bombers be warned.
And yet, in 2020, the Mariners are accidental contenders. Their position players boast two top-30 caliber players in The Kyles, with dearly departed Austin Nola and dearly destillpresent J.P. Crawford mixing offense and defense for 3-5 win pace. Dylan Moore, also, yes? Look, these Mariners are a team succeeding in spite of its back half offensively, and thanks to a surprising rotation buoyed by Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield, and a pretty lucky Justin Dunn to match an unlucky Yusei Kikuchi. Seattle has a player who quite possibly is an impactful upgrade on their current corner outfield rotation of Sam Haggerty, Jose Marmolejos, Phil Ervin, and Dylan Moore, and his name is Jarred Kelenic. So should Seattle bring Kelenic up and try to put their most high-ceiling club on the field for the final three weeks of the 2020 season? Let’s take the question from a couple angles, in no order of importance.
For me, the greatest argument against calling up Kelenic is a fear of scuppering his natural improvement as a player. If Kelenic has reasonable goals he hasn’t met or isn’t meeting in the Tacoma alternate site, Seattle shouldn’t feel pressured to rush up their top prospect to prove something. Prior to 2020, Kelenic had 752 plate appearances in the minors, which would make for a quick-but-not unthinkable call up pace. In lieu of a normal AA-AAA slate this year, he’s had a blend of big league adjacent and untested opposition in the Tacoma alternate site, mixing starters like Logan Gilbert, Ljay Newsome, Seth Frankoff, and Jimmy Yacabonis with relievers like Joey Gerber, Art Warren, Aaron Fletcher, and Sam Delaplane, but also undercooked starters like Isaiah Campbell, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, and Juan Then.
If the Mariners believe Kelenic is still not meeting their expectations in process and performance against their imbalanced pitching group, so be it, he should continue to grind. That’s not something we can know, and what little we do get from the alternate site is filtered through the team and its affiliated media. Still, at this point in the year Kelenic was expected to be up, getting his first looks at big league pitching day in and day out. If there is a developmental concern to be had, arguably, it’s dulling the ultra-competitive Kelenic’s skills against repetitive and inferior competition. If Seattle’s primary concern is losing a year of contract control (spoilers - it is) over Kelenic, it is conversely unlikely to improve any relationship with Kelenic and his representation around a contract extension.
We’ve already talked about Kelenic’s lack of clarity in Tacoma this year, so this in larger part an indictment of the options ahead of Kelenic in the outfield. Kyle Lewis, you look great, don’t change a thing. Dylan Moore, technically an outfielder, but more an everyday UTIL at the moment. Sam Haggerty is hurt and a candidate for regression. Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, and Mallex Smith have all struggled in various degrees over the past two years. Tim Lopes, Dee Gordon, Phillip Ervin, and Jose Marmolejos are not hitting enough, nor do they have the track records, to merit daily use. The non-Lewis+Moore outfield group has totaled -0.9 fWAR on the year and a 61 wRC+ in 390 combined PAs, with a .209/.264/.317 line, undercutting the impressive breakouts from Lewis and Moore severely.
It’s a tall order to ask a 21 year old Kelenic to outdo an array of fringe and formerly solid big leaguers, but there’s plenty of reason to think he could. Steamer projected Kelenic for an 87 wRC+ prior to the season, following just 92 PAs in AA in the back half of 2019. Had Kelenic gotten a longer run in the Arizona Fall League, we might have a more thorough appraisal of Kelenic in high-quality competition. Instead, only the Mariners know how he’s looked in a summer of reps against Logan Gilbert and an array of fringe big league arms as a substitute for ~300 PAs in Arkansas and Tacoma. Last night we saw Seth Frankoff in San Francisco, working a scoreless inning. A few weeks ago, Jarred Kelenic gave him far more trouble.
Do a couple of dingers make a scouting report? No, and as much as it’d be nice to feel Kelenic is doing the equivalent of bashing down the door to take a spot for the surprisingly relevant M’s, we can’t know what his day-to-day looks like. But off the rest of the outfield group’s small samples of 2020, and the longer samples of careers of uninspiring or inconsistent performance, it’s hard to argue Kelenic isn’t one of the three best healthy corner outfielders Seattle has right now. If Seattle’s goal is to push for the playoffs as many times as they can, this year, with under three weeks to go and just 2.0 and 2.5 games separating Seattle from a pair of playoff spots, Seattle should deeply consider what their best nine is. I think they would agree that group includes Kelenic.
The third component is an external one. What do we want from a baseball team? To see them try to maximize their projected windows? Or to go in on opportunities that present themselves? To pursue winning, but only as long as it comes efficiently? Or is the process part of the reward, knowing that a lengthy plan came together, giving a sense of coordination over happenstance?
There’s not a right answer to this last component, other than what feels right to you. Do you want to see the best team a club can put out, every night? Or do you feel content with seeing a team bide their time, putting out lesser options in some cases, with the knowledge that if the future pans out, an even better team will arrive, and be present for longer, hopefully? The Jarred Kelenic question is one of money and convenience, unfortunately, which takes away from the thrill MLB can bring.
Calling Kelenic up, as most fans know, would put him on track for enough prorated time in the majors to count for a full season of time by the later stage of his rookie contract. For 18 games of 21 year old Kelenic, Seattle might stand to lose full control of where Kelenic works when he’s 27. The smart choice is to leave him down, let these plucky M’s play out the stretch, and hope Kelenic continues improving until some magical moment in the start of next May. If Kelenic were to take an extension, perhaps in the framework of the Ronald Acuña deal as Joe outlined earlier this year, he could instantly join Seattle’s outfield much as Evan White did this year. But such an extension is likelier at the outset of a season, perhaps even 2021, but not this September.
Playoff races, however unlikely, however peculiar, however, are not things that come around every year. The Yankees, Astros, and Blue Jays are better teams than the Mariners this year, but for the next three weeks all they have to be is a little worse. They already have been for the last three, it’s no cloying leap to say they could once again, and those odds tick up ever so much more if Seattle’s best nine is on the field each night. I would like to watch Jarred Kelenic this year, as it was the thing I most eagerly anticipated about the 2020 season. Due to the schedule’s brevity, my hopes for that particular debut has likely been scuttled, but the possibility of a bit of playoff baseball for Seattle, against so many odds, is enough to revive them again. The future of the Mariners is bright, but their present has enough of an aura to be worth at least a bit of hopeful dreaming.