MESA, Ariz. – It took all of three games into their Cactus League schedule to find a single moment to perfectly encapsulate what’s going on with the Seattle Mariners.
The push and pull between precocious prospect Jarred Kelenic and the Mariners, the highly-scrutinized decision facing general manager Jerry Dipoto in the coming weeks and the damage done by the caustic comments from now-former CEO Kevin Mather to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, were on display Wednesday.
As the immensely-talented Kelenic pushes to be on the opening day roster by performance and the Mariners try to pull back from Mather’s comments about service time that reeked of manipulation to many, Dipoto finds himself in a situation where anything he does is going to be criticized.
But Wednesday’s 8-8 tie against the Cubs at Sloan Park provided an anecdote that some might consider to be bemusing irony or fitting coincidence. And that it came in the first Mariners’ game televised this spring made it that much more fitting.
As part of ESPN’s national broadcast, there were in-game interviews with the managers and players. In the top of the fourth inning, manager Scott Servais was being interviewed from the dugout. With Kelenic coming to the plate and Jose Marmolejos on base, Servais was asked about when a player is ready to be called up to the big leagues – the looming story line swirling around Kelenic.
Servais went into his answer with Kelenic in the batter’s box facing veteran right-handed reliever Brandon Workman.
“Players will let you know when they are ready,” Servais began to say.
Right about when the words “let you know” came out of his mouth, the unmistakable sound of a baseball being struck on the barrel of a wood bat permeated the interview.
Kelenic had just jumped on a first-pitch fastball, driving it to deep left-center.
Servais didn’t get distracted at first, and never broke from his thought – “They really will. That’s just not the physical part of the game.”
But then Servais could see the ball carrying farther than first expected and stopped his thought.
“Go, keep going, attaway,” he said as the ball carried over the fence. “Good day to hit here in Mesa. Good for him.”
Asked postgame about the coincidental aspect of the moment, Servais tried to downplay it a little.
“Yeah, I was doing the live interview and we have a nice rally going and Jarred did get a ball up in the wind that got out,” Servais said. “Again, we’ve got good young players. They’ve all got plenty to prove. The timing of what they do and when they do is, uh, it’s interesting.
“It’s baseball; you never know what’s going to happen.”
But a believer in baseball karma might disagree and say that’s exactly what was going to happen based on this past week.
Kelenic seemed amused when it was recounted to him.
“For sure, I think it’s perfect timing,” he said.
The homer was Kelenic’s second hit in seven plate appearances, including a walk.
“Off the bat, I thought I didn’t get it,” he said. “I was kind of frustrated with myself. Then I glanced up there to see (Cameron) Maybin going back to the wall and it went over.”
Yes, there was a nice breeze pushing the ball out to left-center, but his ability to drive a ball to that part of the park as a left-handed hitter is significant.
In his first time speaking to the local media since the video of Mather’s speech went viral, Kelenic was open and honest about his situation. He didn’t pull back in his tone. Even if the Mariners might prefer it that way.
If any anger or resentment about his relegation to the alternate training site in Tacoma with no hope for promotion had dissipated over the offseason, it was restoked with Mather’s comments.
“I’m a competitor,” he said. “I’m a very driven person as it is. Having said that, you know, something like this comes up and I think you can look at it one of two ways: One, you can sit and pout about it, or you can use it as motivation and let it drive me even more. That’s kind of where I’m at. Each and every day I’m letting this drive me.”
He said he isn’t going to chase results this spring to prove that he should be on the roster, but he expects them as a byproduct of his work and approach.
The situation surrounding Kelenic’s service time and the Mariners’ club control of his future was already going to be a major topic this spring. But Mather’s comments and a rejected contract extension offer, followed by accusations by Kelenic’s agent Brodie Scoffield that an early call-up was tied to signing the contract extension, have left a spotlight on the situation.
Does that help Kelenic?
“You can obviously look at it like that,” he said. “But for me, you know my job doesn’t change. Regardless of who says what, I’m just gonna come out and play my game.”
For now, the subject can’t be avoided. But it’s clear they don’t want it to be the only subject this spring.
“There’s a lot of confidence there,” Servais said. “He’s a very talented guy, but we have a lot of talented guys. … We’ve got a lot of talented young players. There’s more than just one running around and that’s what excites me so much.”
With the news that the Triple-A season has been pushed back a month to the first week of May, MLB teams will once again use the alternate training sites until then.
This puts the Mariners in an awkward position. The games and at-bats that they’ve claimed Kelenic needs in his development to ready him for the big leagues won’t be available. He can’t stomach the thought of returning to the alternate training site and playing intrasquad games a few times a week.
“Absolutely not, I went through it all summer last year, played extremely well all throughout the alternate site,” he said. “But here’s the thing – it’s not sunshine or rainbows whatsoever. It’s very hard to develop at all when it comes to an alternate site. It’s not real like games. You’re not playing against other competition.”
It would be impossible for the Mariners to claim further development needed for Kelenic with no games available, particularly if he plays well this spring. Perhaps, they could keep him at spring training and have him participate in minor league spring training games against weaker competition.
But his plan is to play well enough to remove any caution or consideration and force them to put him on the opening day roster. He thought he did it last year.
“At the end of the day, those are the cards that were dealt to me,” he said. “Hopefully this year, the dealer gives me different cards. I’m just gonna keep going out and trying to compete my butt off here in spring training and just take it one day at a time.”