NEW YORK — On the one-year anniversary of his MLB debut, and with his much-anticipated return to Queens to face the team that drafted him, Jarred Kelenic was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma on Friday, the Mariners announced.
Kelenic was slashing .140/.219/.291 (.509 OPS) over 96 plate appearances across 30 games in what’s been a tough second season in the Majors. Yet the Mariners had admired his newfound mental approach and believed he was putting together quality at-bats and was taking progressive steps forward after a tough rookie year. More than anything, his swing decisions were touted as being good despite the lack of results.
However, that trajectory seemed to change over Seattle’s most recent six-game homestand, when Kelenic went 3-for-15 with six strikeouts — the last of which came looking against a middle-middle fastball in a pinch-hit at-bat during the bottom of the ninth inning of a tough loss to the Phillies on Wednesday. After the game, Mariners manager Scott Servais was blunt in describing that sequence against reliever Corey Knebel, saying “we were headed in a pretty good direction” with Kelenic’s progress, implying things had shifted.
It was a microcosm of growing challenges that led to Friday’s decision.
“He was getting out of his approach a little bit, not sure what he wanted to do in each individual plate appearance and just sort of searching,” Mariners assistant general manager Justin Hollander said. “And when he was losing his fuel for what his approach needs to be, that’s when we felt like, ‘OK, it’s probably time.’”
Kelenic had also continued to struggle against left-handed pitching, which prompted the Mariners not to start him regularly against tough southpaw starters — just five times in nine such games. Moreover, Kelenic is 3-for-51 in two-strike counts this season and hasn’t been able to consistently translate the elite bat-to-ball skills he showed as one of the top prospects in baseball into his early career in the Majors.
“You hope he doesn’t have to use his two-strike approach as often,” Servais said. “He’s getting his pitch and getting it in play earlier. He’s got a really good swing. He’s super strong. When he squares it up, he hits the ball as hard as anybody we have. It’s just the consistency, but also understanding that a lot of his at-bats are going to have two strikes.”
The timing of Kelenic playing at Citi Field and against a Mets club that selected him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 Draft was perhaps coincidental. Kelenic was the Mariners’ key return in a blockbuster trade that December that in many ways sparked Seattle’s rebuild. It’s also a trade that fanbases of both clubs continue to talk about today given the ongoing trajectories it sent both clubs on.
Kelenic traveled with the club to New York and was informed of the decision early Friday.
The Mariners are still bullish on the makeup of the 22-year-old, but it’s clear that they want him to continue to sort out some of his kinks in the Minors — just as they did last year three weeks after he made his MLB debut, when they sent him down amidst a hitless streak of 42 plate appearances.
“The reaction last year was much different than it was today,” Servais said. “He has a much more mature understanding of where the team is and where he’s at, and he wants to be a big part of this team and he’s got to get going in the right direction.”
Kelenic came back in a better headspace, and he was a critical cog in the Mariners’ September surge that helped them take their postseason hopes down to the final day of the regular season. In that month, he had an .854 OPS and seven of his 14 homers on the season.
As for his continued development, Kelenic played in just 179 Minor League games before he was called up last May 13, including just 27 at Double-A or higher because he skyrocketed through Seattle’s system. At 22 years and 301 days old on Friday, he is the 13th-youngest player to take an at-bat in the Majors this season.
“They call it the transition tax — you pay with the difference between the Minor Leagues and the big leagues, and it has never been greater,” Hollander said. “And he just needs reps against competition to remember how good he is. Again, I think some of it’s a deep breath. Some of it is focusing on an approach that he can stick with and get behind every day and stick to. I don’t think there are mechanical overhauls necessary.”
Kelenic’s transaction was one of eight roster moves that the Mariners made ahead of their three-game series against the Mets.