PEORIA, Ariz. — Jarred Kelenic has homered four times in his first six spring games — all blasts, none pulled. Both Kelenic and his Mariners bosses view this as validation of work he did this offseason to refashion his swing away from all or nothing.
Mariners general manager Justin Hollander — a believer in Kelenic the player and the worker — does not consider the early results a mirage. So when asked if he is right, what do the Mariners have in left field, Hollander said: “An All-Star. He’s a dynamic defensive player who is an aggressive and effective base runner, who has power, who plays really hard and who can be the engine of a team.”
So, yep, another layer is potentially being added to a baseball debate with no end — who won the Kelenic Trade? Or is it the Edwin Diaz Trade? The argument began on Dec. 3, 2018 when the Mets dealt Kelenic (six months after he was the sixth pick of the draft, four spots ahead of Oakland taking Kyler Murray), Justin Dunn, Gerson Bautista, Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak to Seattle for Diaz and Robinson Cano.
Initially as Diaz struggled in New York and Kelenic rose to a top-10 prospect, it was huge advantage Seattle. That flipped as Diaz steadied and produced perhaps the best relief season in Mets history in 2022 while Kelenic was just historically bad (his .168 batting average is the worst for a position player with at least 500 plate appearances in their first 147 games).
But is this currently a Met win?
Consider: 1. Cano missed a year to a drug suspension and ultimately was released with the Mets owing $40 million, including $20 million toward a record luxury-tax payroll in 2022. 2. What was the opportunity cost lost in trading Kelenic before he defined himself as an elite prospect and perhaps could have netted the Mets any available star without the millstone of Cano attached? 3. Diaz was so bad in 2019, he near single-handedly cost the Mets a playoff spot. 4. Diaz was obtained for his control period. So what he does now after signing a five-year, $100 million free-agent pact is less relevant to the assessment.
What remains relevant is what becomes of Kelenic. He has been dominant in the minors, yet a majors bust. He has been sent to the minors three times in the past two years while striking out in 30 percent of his overmatched, overwhelmed plate appearances.
“Anytime you’re in a trade like that, there’s a lot of hype that comes with it,” Kelenic said. “No different than guys that come up as high prospects in baseball. That doesn’t change anything. What’s happened in the past is done. So, now you can just look forward to what’s still to come.”
As manager Scott Servais said, “He put unrealistic expectations on himself. High draft choice. High-profile trade. He’s gonna be the savior. He put a lot of pressure on himself. And then things don’t go well. And he’s young.”
Kelenic is 23, younger than four of the six players who received AL Rookie of the Year votes last season. Questions about his maturity hovered around his failures. But Seattle never questioned his work ethic. Kelenic spent the offseason in Southern California working with two veteran instructors to change his swing, hitting mindset and learn “how to feel in the box” in each plate appearance.
Servais said the result is a swing that “stays on plane” and gives him a better shot to do damage on all the breaking stuff that was going beneath Kelenic’s lefty swing.
“We’ve always believed in Jarred, and the work that he did this offseason, I can’t say enough about the way in which he looked at himself and thought, ‘What are the changes that I need to make both physically and approach-wise to get to where I want to be?’” Hollander said. “Then he went and did it. That kind of makeup, work ethic and talent with his on-field tools is what we think is going to allow him to get over this hump. He’s always been a difference-making player at every level. I don’t see why it’s not going to happen in the big leagues.”
If it does, it would be quite the wild card for the Mariners to be more than a wild card and a real threat to the AL West behemoth Astros. Seattle ended the majors’ longest playoff drought (since 2001) last year despite the sixth-worst OPS by lefty hitters (.651) and fifth-worst OPS by left fielders (.658). Kelenic is the lefty-swinging part of a left-field platoon with A.J. Pollock. There’s never been a doubt that when the ball leaves Kelenic’s bat, it is loud. Can he now do that enough to impact the ball and the Mariners’ playoff chances or is this just another alteration en route to the same — being optioned to the minors again?
“If Jarred clicks it changes what our team is and what it can be,” Hollander said.
It also would change — yet again — the view of the trade that brought him from the Mets.