Not a Moment Too Soon: Mariners Promote Kelenic, Gilbert

Earlier today, the Seattle Mariners promoted Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic to their active roster; both are expected to start in tonight’s game against Cleveland. The joint moves are the latest and most decisive steps to date in Seattle’s rebuild, and mark the next phase in the Mariners’ quest to construct a contender around a nucleus of homegrown talent.

This is undoubtedly a big day for the Mariners and their fans. As you probably know, the team owns the longest playoff drought in major American sports, a streak now in its 20th year. In those two decades of fits and starts, aborted tear-downs and calamitous collapses, Seattle has teased fans with young and talented rosters before. But while there’s never any guarantee that bluechip farmhands will live up to their billing, this era has a different feel to it. The current regime’s player development staff already has a few wins under their belt, and Seattle’s farm system is deeper than in previous rebuilding cycles, particularly when it comes to premium position players: In Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, the Mariners have a pair of prospects with legitimate star potential.

There’s not much I can tell you about Kelenic that Eric Longenhagen hasn’t covered already. We have him as the game’s fourth-best prospect right now, a player who projects as a plus bat and one who may have muscled his way into plus power as well. Mariners fans will find much to salivate over in Eric’s full remarks, but as a brief teaser: “Kelenic rakes. His feel for contact, strength, and mature approach combine to make him a lethal offensive threat… I expect him to come up in 2021 and be an immediate impact player.” We’ll talk more about all of the learning and developing and maturing he did in his six games down in Tacoma later. For now, suffice to say that his spring and Triple-A appearances did nothing to damage his stock.

Gilbert, who ranks 35th on the Top 100, has a short minor league track record, but the limited reports we have suggest that he’s also ready for the big leagues. The high-floor righty pitched well in last week’s apparently developmentally necessary outing in Tacoma, striking out five in as many innings while missing 11 bats, mostly on the fastball. He’ll be a breath of fresh air for anyone a little tired of 95-and-a-slider types with mediocre control, as he gets by with good command of a deep arsenal rather than overpowering stuff. As Eric noted in Gilbert’s Top 100 writeup, “Even though it only sits 93-94, Gilbert’s fastball is his best pitch, and the way he most effectively whiffs hitters, though maybe his changeup will show some late development. While all of Gilbert’s secondary pitches are average and flash above, I think his command will enable them to play above their raw grades…” As with Kelenic, Gilbert may not be Seattle’s best player on his side of the ball quite yet, but he’s probably close and he should add a dash of stability to the team’s intriguing but volatile rotation.

In both cases, the Mariners need the help. Even with Kyle Lewis back from the Injured List, Seattle’s lineup is disturbingly short and left field in particular has been a gaping hole. Mariners left fielders are batting .164/.276/.314 this year, and if anything they’ve looked worse than that, as Jake Fraley’s five-game experiment of stapling the bat to his shoulder and hoping for the best helped buoy that line considerably. As a team, the M’s are hitting just .208/.285/.372. They have the second lowest wOBA in the league and have only scored four runs since April 23. That last part isn’t actually true, but it passes the smell test for anyone who’s been watching the team in recent weeks. A league average hitter would belong in the top half of this lineup, and there’s every reason to think Kelenic can hit better than that.

Gilbert’s arrival is also a welcome development, as Seattle’s original six-man rotation is suddenly light on bodies. James Paxton is out for the year, and Marco Gonzales, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome are also on the IL. Yusei Kikuchi is one of the most fascinating pitchers in the sport right now, but behind him, Seattle’s rotation is thin and hasn’t been very good. If he pitches well out of the chute, Gilbert can stake his claim to a rotation spot for years to come.

We don’t know if Kelenic and Gilbert will translate seamlessly to the majors. The leap to the highest level is incredibly difficult, and prospect forecasting remains more art than science. But while we can’t say for sure that these arrivals will rejuvenate Seattle’s season, on paper these two give the Mariners a better chance to win games than the unit they’ve been running out all year. On talent, Kelenic at least should have broken camp with the big league club. That he’s been held back for financial, not competitive reasons barely needs mentioning.

Mention we will though, even as the discussion surrounding service time manipulation remains as tedious as ever. I have no new ground to break here, and I suspect most readers long ago bunkered into their respective camps on this issue. As has been the case for years, service manipulation is a cold but financially sensible business practice, at least in the short run. The long-term benefits are harder to tease out, and the practice is morally dubious and antagonistic to the competitive integrity of the game, but again, none of this is new.

Still, while the broader contours of the service time manipulation conversation are tiresome and familiar, the Mariners deserve special scrutiny. Around the league, the verbal winks and nods and comments from club officials about how top farmhands need more minor league time to work on their defense or baserunning have been trite for years, but in most places team executives still bothered to fake it for the cameras. In Seattle, not only did former President and CEO Kevin Mather brag about his plan to hold Kelenic back (among other things), but the front office rolled out the suppression playbook even after he got caught saying it. When majority owner John Stanton referred to Mather’s comments as “unfortunate” and stated that the Mariners “must be, and do, better,” it’s clear that he wasn’t talking about doing right by the organization’s players.

In the aftermath of Mather’s remarks, it took only a few days for general manager Jerry Dipoto to claim that Kelenic’s service time wasn’t getting manipulated (even though the team had admitted on video to manip—you know, never mind) while also suggesting that the idea of service manipulation for a player so young was absurd: “I’m not sure how you construe service-time manipulation with a 21-year-old who has played 20 games above A ball and has not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player.”

Juan Soto didn’t hit either of those benchmarks prior to his debut, but I digress; this was never a good-faith argument, as the Mariners themselves have now confirmed in their actions. Three months and all of six minor league games later, the Mariners have their extra year of team control, and Kelenic is on his way to Seattle.

Time will tell whether they’ve poisoned the well on future contract dealings. Kelenic has expressed his frustration with Seattle’s approach to negotiations, lamenting that he was only held down because he wouldn’t sign an extension prior to debuting, as Evan White did last season. The Mariners deny the charge, with all the credibility of a chocolate-lipped child who insists they haven’t raided the cookie jar. In any case, the odds of a team-friendly extension don’t look particularly good.

In the years ahead, we’ll see how that relationship plays out. For now, the Mariners are running their best team out on the field, and we can turn our focus back to the diamond. The arrival of Kelenic and Gilbert signals the opening of Seattle’s competitive window. For the team faithful forced to wait 20 years and then a touch longer, it comes not a moment too soon.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

As a M’s fan, I’m exciting to see if the new crop is just Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero v2, or something to truly hope around. As a baseball fan, I’d love to see an analysis of whether players whose service time was manipulated ended up more or less likely to sign extensions with their original teams. Damaging the franchise’s relationship with young talent just to squeeze another year of profits is, as a fan, infuriating.

2 years ago
Reply to  nmirra

I wonder if it’s a two-way street with some of these players that get their service time manipulated. Like from the get-go you know a prospect like Kelenic is going to chase the big money, so you game the clock to get that extra year.

Smiling Politely
2 years ago
Reply to  catmanwayne

If you’re going to trade the guy before his FA clock runs out, you probably don’t care about his feelings toward you (which is my impression of perspective of most ownerships/front offices)

2 years ago
Reply to  nmirra

What’s interesting is Kris Bryant’s service time issue has now worked in his favor. He would have been a free agent coming off the season of Covid, and he would have been coming off his worst season due to injuries. Now, he’s positioned to be a free agent when teams have greater financial clarity and looks to be having his best season in years. It doesn’t change the overall issue, and the fact that the MLBPA has allowed this to happen, but it is an interesting side note.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

Donaldson got 1 year and like 25 when he was older and coming off an injury. Bryant could have found a similar “show me” deal