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Examining the many potential outcomes of Jarred Kelenic’s spring training

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There are so many different ways this could go...

Seattle Mariners v Chicago Cubs Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The ever-evolving saga of the Seattle Mariners and Jarred Kelenic got a little muddier Tuesday when Jeff Passan reported the Triple-A season will not start on time, getting pushed back at least a month. Alternate training sites will be back for a while in April instead. It’s the latest wrinkle in a raisin-esque spring between the Mariners and Kelenic.

Service time manipulation entirely aside, another trip to the alternate training site for Kelenic helps absolutely nobody. He faced all of those arms for several months in 2020. After a few weeks and having seen a couple hundred pitches from every arm available, the whole thing becomes stale. “Development” at that point is stalled. Kelenic has nothing to gain from four more weeks this year of Brady Lail t-ball practice.

In a post-game interview with Seattle media following Wednesday’s game against the Cubs, Kelenic confirmed as much.

“Absolutely not,” Kelenic said. “I went through one all last summer, played extremely well throughout the alternate site, but here’s the thing — it’s not sunshine and rainbows whatsoever. It’s hard to develop at all when it comes to an alternate site. It’s not real-life games. You’re not playing against other competition.”

Indeed, Kelenic’s opinion is one most of us held true. The entire thing feels more like a simulation and exercise than it does true-to-form baseball. After a certain point, there’s not much to gain from it anymore.

As if to pour salt on the wound, Major League Baseball is reportedly discussing the potential for alternate training site teams in close proximity to each other be allowed to compete in exhibition games. Individuals on teams would have to drive themselves to the opposition’s training sites for those games. Well, the closest alternate training site to Tacoma would be Sacramento... not exactly a quick stroll down the block. It’s unlikely at this point guys from the Tacoma site would be playing anybody but themselves in April.

The delayed Triple-A season also cost the Mariners and Jerry Dipoto his ‘out’ in terms of an excuse. Sending your star outfield prospect down to Triple-A for some extra seasoning for a month or so to play real games against different rotating competition can be sold to the baseball world. After all, you’ve been assertive in the notion Kelenic’s lack of minor league at-bats is a liability for the young slugger at the next level. It makes sense. It really does.

Also, important to note, we don’t know for sure that Triple-A will start at the beginning of May. It could be pushed back further and further. Nothing is definitive right now.

Here’s the thing. Lost service time is going to happen as the big league season ticks by. It doesn’t matter where Kelenic is. He could be at the alternate training site. He could be at Triple-A. He could be sitting at home. The three weeks necessary to get his service time under 172 total days for the year (the one full year accrual threshold) will be achieved at the end of April so long as MLB games are being played. If Kelenic isn’t on the big league roster by the end of April, Seattle will likely control him through 2027.

So what do you do if you’re Dipoto? Do you send him down to the alternate training site? Surely you can’t promote Kelenic to the big league club at the end of April when his service time clock is friendlier right? If you’re going to send him down to the alternate training site, the optics of promoting him to the big league active roster before playing any real Triple-A ballgames would be pretty egregious. That’s pretty blatant service time manipulation. But if you do that and are willing to wait, what if Triple-A doesn’t start until June. Then you have to wait at least 100 at-bats so Kelenic can prove he’s “seasoned” and ready, right? That takes us to July. At which point you’ve waited three months and all Kelenic has accrued is 100 more minor league at-bats. Wouldn’t 300 big league at-bats be just as advantageous at that point?

Nobody really wins in all this.

There’s a number of what-if scenarios that could come into play here. Let’s dissect how much water-weight each holds.

Scenario 1: Kelenic surges all spring; Trammell+Fraley struggle

This circumstance should be the easiest outcome for Dipoto and the front office to navigate. If Kelenic proves on paper and in-person to be one of the best few hitters you have available, you put the best team on the field against the Giants on Opening Day. If Kelenic without question gives you the best chance to win, and looks every bit the part of a potential star, you eat the extra year of service time and get him in left field on day one. Hey, if he struggles and you need to conveniently demote him for a month to “work on some things” in July around the All-Star break, there you go, you get the year of service time back.

One of Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop is your fourth outfielder here.

Scenario 2: Kelenic surges all spring; So does Trammell or Fraley

This is certainly a tough on for Dipoto. Trammell and Fraley are already on the 40-man roster. They’re older than Kelenic. They have the minor league at-bats to show from it. They’ve “earned” the chance to break camp with Seattle.

In this case, One of Trammell or Fraley and potentially Bishop make the big league roster.

This is probably the only scenario where you could send Kelenic to the alternate training site and call him up at the end of April without a full-blown grievance being filed. Granted, that would likely only be possible if Trammell or Fraley struggled to open the year in Seattle and Kelenic “LOOKS GREAT!” at the alternate training site. He would then take the incumbent’s starting spot. If Kelenic proves he’s ready, but an older player already on the 40-man has a strong spring, it’s not impossible to make the argument the older player get the chance first. It doesn’t really pass the public sniff test, but it floats.

Scenario 3: Kelenic is fine this spring; Trammell and Fraley are awful

This is almost certainly a worst case scenario for Dipoto and the front office. On one hand, Kelenic likely proves he’s your best option in left field out of the gates, but also shows he’s not a surefire dynamo right away. On the other side of the coin, Trammell and Fraley both suggest starting either of them in left field on opening day is waving the proverbial white flag out there.

If Kelenic isn’t a complete stud this spring, he’s probably headed to the alternate training site, and if throwing an underachiever in left field is the band-aid, it could spark a bit of a public relations nightmare.

Scenario 4: Kelenic struggles this spring

This probably speaks for itself. If Kelenic struggles this spring, he’s headed to the alternate training site. If he struggles this spring, the Mariners will have to wait until Kelenic can get some worthwhile at-bats against real Triple-A teams. At that point, earliest Kelenic probably sees Seattle is June.

Final Thoughts

The moving pieces and what-ifs are mind-numbing. No matter how you look at it, the delaying of the Triple-A season really hurt Kelenic and the Mariners as a whole. Nobody wins.

That said, in 2015 the Cubs started a real, professional baseball player named “Mike Olt” at third base on opening day instead of Kris Bryant. Bryant was coming off a monstrous spring training where he led all big leaguers in homers. Olt was a career .160 hitter. Bryant was called up just three weeks later. We’re still talking about that manipulation to this day. Probably don’t want a similar narrative in Seattle.

Best case scenario for all parties, fans included, is Kelenic proving without a doubt he’s the best player on the field, developmentally ripened, and a potential star from the get-go. Forget the service time. Forget any side of the baseball operations strategy. You put him out there and you let him eat.

Every other scenario this spring just makes things murky. Frankly, I’ll feel bad for Kelenic if he has to go waste anymore time at Cheney pumping nukes off the same pitchers he beat up all last summer.