The Seattle Mariners will be dealing with the consequences of ousted president Kevin Mather's comments to a local rotary club for a while, and that includes desperately trying to unring one of Mather's loudest bells.
One of the more consequential of Mather's comments concerned the service time of prospect Jarred Kelenic, among the most prized prospects in all of baseball. While speaking with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, Mather admitted the team had offered Kelenic a long-term contract extension that would have delayed the player's entry into free agency by up to three years. The offer was reportedly rejected.
Mather also revealed that Kelenic would be promoted to the majors and become the team's starting left fielder in April, just enough of a wait to limit Kelenic's service time and delay his free agency by a year. Essentially, the Mariners would get seven years of team control over Kelenic instead of six.
Taken together, the implications are obvious. The Mariners believe Kelenic is already good enough to start playing in the majors, but are willing to give up a month of him as a rookie in exchange for a year of him as a seventh-year player. Mather outright admitted that his team did this:
"If our major league team had had a COVID outbreak, or injuries, and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players. Because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park [in 2020]. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster, we weren’t going to start the service time clock."
And now the Mariners have begun claiming that Mather's comments were not accurate, because it remains in their interest, much to the consternation of the player himself.
Mariners GM and top prospect not in agreement
The second act of the Mariners' Kelenic drama began when general manager Jerry Dipoto was doing damage control following Mather's resignation.
Calling Mather's comments a "single person's interpretation," Dipoto did his best to apologize to the breathtaking number of players Mather had offended and distance the team from the man it no longer employed, per USA Today.
That meant trying to convince the public that when Mather was saying Kelenic was on track for a starting job in MLB, he was wrong. Dipoto reportedly insisted that Kelenic's promotion would be a baseball decision based on the prospect's development. Dipoto characterized Kelenic as a player with little experience above Class A ball, whom the Mariners were really doing a favor by keeping in the minors.
From USA Today:
“I'm not sure how you construe a service time manipulation with a 21-year-old player who's played  games above A-ball,’’ Dipoto says, “and who not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player. That would be an unprecedented that hasn’t happened in three decades. While Jared is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure that he has checked off the boxes in development because it's incumbent on us, not just for the good of the Mariners, but for the benefit of Jarred Kelenic.’’
It should be noted that Kelenic would have appeared in several games above the Class A level last year had the coronavirus pandemic not swallowed the minor league season whole. Instead, Kelenic spent 2020 playing at the Mariners' alternate site, where his development earned rave reviews.
It took less than a day for Kelenic's camp to respond to Dipoto's insistence that he isn't MLB-ready. Kelenic and his agent told USA Today that Kelenic had been told multiple times he would have made his MLB debut last year had he signed the Mariners' extension offer:
“It was communicated to Jarred that had he signed that contract, he would have debuted last year,’’ said Brodie Scoffield, who represents Kelenic. “It was made crystal clear to Jarred — then and now — that his decision not to call him up is based on service time.
“There’s no question that if he signed that contract, he would have been in the big leagues."
Said Kelenic, who spent last year in the Mariners’ alternate camp: “It wasn’t just communicated one time to me. It was told to me several times. That’s the God’s honest truth. It got old.’’
Dipoto reportedly declined to comment on Kelenic's claims.
So now we have one executive saying a player needs additional seasoning, while that player claims he has been told he is ready for the big leagues as long as he's willing to sacrifice some of his future earning potential. Of course, only one of those sides is asking you to believe a number of premises that some would say are ... shaky.
Here is what Jerry Dipoto wants you to believe
Let's just list what Dipoto seems to expect everyone to believe when he says Kelenic isn't MLB-ready and the Mariners aren't trying to squeeze an extra year out of their top prospect.
1. Kevin Mather is a liar
This will be a familiar refrain for the Mariners, and all of MLB. Mather's candor can be seen as confirmation of what the MLB Players Association has insisted for years, that clubs manipulate players' service time not to make their rosters better, but to maximize financial control of those players. The number of top prospects to make their debut in late April over the years leaves little doubt that MLB does this, and has resulted in contentious grievances in the past.
After Mather's comments came to light, the MLBPA released a statement claiming they represented an "unfiltered look" into how teams operate, while former All-Star Josh Donaldson implied they would help the players immensely in future service time grievances.
2. Jarred Kelenic and his agent are liars
If what Kelenic says is true, it's pretty obvious the Mariners are playing the service time game with an MLB-ready player. Publicly undercutting one of the most important players in your organization would be a bold move, but avoiding having to pay him early may make it worth it to the small-market Mariners.
3. The Mariners failed to develop Kelenic last year
It's quite interesting Dipoto would trot out Kelenic's minor-league history, but that isn't to say what he said is inaccurate. Kelenic has only 92 plate appearances at the Double-A level, and none at the Triple-A level. He was decent in those 92 plate appearances (.857 OPS), but it usually takes more seasoning for a player to make an MLB jump.
However, Dipoto's comments conveniently ignore the face that Kelenic did receive seasoning last year, just not in the typically quantifiable way. Even ignoring the endorsements Kelenic received for his play at the Mariners' alternate site, to characterize him as a player whose development essentially stopped after 2019 would be either misleading or an admission of a staggering failure by the Mariners.
4. Every prominent prospect analyst is wrong
Let's just take a look at how all the prominent prospect evaluators characterize Kelenic's ETA to the majors.
MLB Pipeline: 2021
The Athletic: 2021
Baseball Prospectus: 2021
Obviously, there's a difference between opening day 2021, late April 2021 and August 2021 as far as development goes, but everyone who has followed Kelenic or talked to scouts about him believes 2021 is his year, and recall that Mather said that Kelenic's ETA was April 2021 at the earliest. The Athletic's Keith Law even noted Kelenic would have probably debuted in 2020 with a full minor-league season.
5. Juan Soto does not exist
This may just be a hang-up, but Dipoto is wrong when he says an MLB promotion is unprecedented for a 21-year-old player who has played only 21 games above A-ball and seen only 800 plate professional plate appearances.
Washington Nationals star Juan Soto did almost exactly that in 2018. When the Nationals promoted him due to a glut of injuries, Soto had played eight games above Class A ball and had seen 512 total plate appearances in the minors. And he was 19 years old.
What happened next is well-known among baseball fans; Soto raked his way to stardom and is now quite possibly the most feared hitter in baseball. But think of how much the Nationals would have benefited if they had waited until April 2019 to promote him.
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