The Mariners announced a handful of roster moves yesterday during the Spring Training game against the San Diego Padres. The main headline is that the #4 prospect in the MLB will not be on the 2021 Opening Day roster. Jarred Kelenic was re-assigned to minor league camp alongside Brady Lail, Paul Sewald, and Julio Rodriguez.
Some fans aren’t happy that Jarred Kelenic won’t be starting in left field, but I think the correct decision was made.
The Mariners cannot repeat the Mike Zunino project with Jarred Kelenic
Mike Zunino is the best example of what can happen when you rush a prospect into the big leagues and I don’t want it to happen to Jarred Kelenic. The Mariners drafted Mike Zunino third overall in the 2012 MLB Draft and at the time, he was a fantastic pick.
At the University of Florida, Zunino hit .327 and hit 47 home runs in three seasons. He received numerous accolades such as the Dick Howser Trophy, Johnny Bench Award, and Baseball America’s College Player of the Year. So how does this all relate back to Jarred Kelenic? Mike Zunino, a highly touted prospect, barely spent time in the minor leagues and was called up prematurely which derailed his young career in Seattle.
The former Mariners catcher played in just 96 minor league games before getting his first taste of the big leagues. After being drafted in 2012, he played 29 games in low-A, and 15 in Double-A. Then in 2013, he started the season in Triple-A and played 52 games before getting the call from the big league team.
Zunino struggled in his first year in the big leagues and batted .214 in 52 games. Despite his struggles, the Mariners kept him up in the big leagues for 2014 and he finished with an even lower batting average: .199. Mike Zunino never ended up finding his swing in the big leagues.
Now when you look at the time Jarred Kelenic has spent in the minors, it is also sparse. The 21-year-old outfielder has only played in 173 minor league games since being drafted sixth overall in 2018. That is nearly double the number of minor league games Zunino played before his MLB debut, but Mike was a college draft prospect. Kelenic was drafted straight out of high school, so his development should naturally take longer than Zunino.
Furthermore, Jarred Kelenic has barely played above Single-A. The Wisconsin native has only played in 21 Double-A games. No matter how good he has looked in Spring Training, it is way too early for him to be called up. We need to learn from the Mike Zunino project, which failed.
2020 delayed Jarred Kelenic’s development
This article would be completely different if the minor league season wasn’t canceled last year. Had there been a minor league season in 2020, Jarred probably would have started in Double-A and moved up to Triple-A by the midway point. That would have set him up nicely to play in T-Mobile Park this year, assuming that he succeeded.
But instead, Jarred spent time in the alternate training site which was a good secondary option, but it isn’t the same as a full season where you play every day. Because Kelenic was not on a regular-season schedule, I think it would have been tough on him to get back into the groove of a full schedule while also facing big league players for the first time (outside of Spring Training).
The Mariners outfield is already crowded = no reason to rush Jarred Kelenic
When Mike Zunino was around, catching was sort of a need. Jesus Montero was on the team but his defensive capabilities were not nearly as close to the level Mike Zunino was at. But for the current Mariners team, they have a lot of young depth in the outfield so it isn’t a necessity to have Kelenic on the roster, which should be viewed as a luxury.
The Mariners are still testing out Jake Fraley to figure out what he can do at the big-league level. I am sure that was another reason why they wanted Kelenic to get reps in the minor leagues rather than splitting time with Fraley. The same goes for Taylor Trammell, the other top prospect. He has a little more minor league experience than Kelenic and is on a quicker timeline to reach the big leagues.
Extra motivation for Jarred Kelenic
Obviously, the Kevin Mather controversy gave the Mariners prospect some extra motivation, but there might be more even more motivation now that he is starting in the minor leagues again. I think it could make Kelenic angry (in a healthy way) and could make him perform even better when he arrives in Seattle.
Jarred Kelenic’s injury
Jarred missed a little time with an injury during Spring Training and made a very quick recovery. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for him right now, but I imagine that the Mariners staff are being extremely cautious with him. I would do the same.
I think sending him down to the minors helps to keep him extra safe and to really focus on rehabbing (if he is still doing rehab). You never know, Jarred could be playing at 90% health right now and it’s not worth him risking any further damage by trying to show out on the big stage.
Lastly, there is an additional benefit since Kelenic won’t be on the Opening Day roster. Kevin Mather has already talked about this topic and I don’t have much else to add. I put this at the very end on purpose because I don’t support service time manipulation, but it is an additional benefit to having Kelenic work his way up from the minors this year.
I know many fans are still angry and want to see him on Opening Day, but there are too many good reasons to get him more time in the minors. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be too long before we see him in a Mariners uniform and see him in the Rookie of the Year conversation.