The Jarred Kelenic Service Time Question Illustrates a Broken System

Jarred Kelenic is right, or at the very least, he’s not wrong. There’s no reason not to take the recent claims of the Mariners outfielder and his representative, Brody Scoffield, at face value. Their story — that Kelenic was offered a pre-debut extension and that when he declined to sign it, the club refused to call him up in 2020 for service time reasons — is totally believable, and is backed up by Kevin Mather’s now infamous remarks over Zoom to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club; Mather, the club’s President and CEO at the time of his remarks, resigned last week. The proposed extension, which Mather described as a “long-term deal, six-year deal for substantial money with options to go farther,” speaks both to Kelenic’s immense talent as well as the Mariners’ desire to lock him up on team-friendly terms.

Jerry Dipoto, who addressed the situation last Tuesday, is right, or at the very least, he might not be wrong. Dipoto said what one normally would about a highly-ranked prospect who is generating hype but isn’t on the roster yet. (Here it worth remembering that GMs operate within the budget strictures ownership set for them. That’s not to say Dipoto has no agency, and owners look for GMs who are willing to let this type of fiscal responsibility take precedence over winning baseball games. But in reality, ownership should be on the hook to a far greater degree than the front office in the eyes of fans.) Kelenic has only played 21 games above A-ball. He hit a very solid .253/.315/.542 in those 21 games, as a teenager mind you, and was actually remarkably unlucky, as evidenced by his exceptionally light .246 BABIP. Still, a little more seasoning in Triple-A, as Dipoto suggests, might be beneficial. Kelenic’s approach could use some tightening and his strength gains have come with some of his twitch going backwards, which is starting to hinder him defensively.

But those are nitpicks, not deficiencies that should have kept him out of Seattle. Evan White proves the case. White isn’t nearly as talented as Kelenic, but he signed a pre-debut deal and was instantly the Opening Day first baseman in 2020. His bat wasn’t ready, as evidenced by a miserable 66 wRC+ to go with an ugly 41.6% strikeout rate, yet he was there. Was White the Mariners’ best option? Maybe. But did the fact that he signed the sort of big league deal that Kelenic turned down drive the decision to have him with the major league team while Kelenic futzed around at the team’s alternate site in Tacoma? No question.

The 2020 season, with it’s compressed schedule and frequent COVID-19 issues, forced many teams to push players to the big leagues who they didn’t expect to before spring training was shut down. I watched it up close with an Astros pitching staff that saw 10 hurlers make their major league debut. Facing a nearly two-decade long playoff drought, Seattle finished just two games behind Houston for a playoff spot in last year’s expanded format, and whatever tweaking he might still need to do, it’s nearly impossible to argue Kelenic wouldn’t have been an improvement over the Mariners’ left field situation, centering as it did around players like Tim Lopes, José Marmolejos, Dee Strange-Gordon, Sam Haggerty and Dylan Moore.

There’s nothing wrong with a team making a pre-debut offer per se. In Kelenic’s case, it would have provided him with what was almost certainly tens of millions of dollars of insurance against all sorts of things that can go wrong between now and when a player with no major league service time enters free agency. Kelenic turned it down, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Mather indicated that Kelenic was going to “bet on himself,” a phrase used frequently in such negotiations. I love players who bet on themselves. It speaks to confidence, and confidence is a big part of makeup. The problem comes when not signing the contract — rather than readiness — results in Kelenic not playing in the big leagues. As Scoffield and Kelenic told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale:

“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.

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.”

The offer of a team-friendly deal isn’t the problem, nor is the rejection. The problem is the wink-wink, nudge-nudge perks that were offered to Kelenic as part of the deal. The promise of big league time is unofficially attached to the deal, but that’s not even necessary. It’s obvious because of the rules that define service time, as well as arbitration and free agency eligibility. If Kelenic signs a big league deal, all the mechanics are then in place to add him to the major league roster. His price for now and the future is fixed, and there are no 40-man machinations or service time considerations to worry about. He can just play.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Padres are the current poster franchise for focusing on winning with their free spending ways, including Fernando Tatis Jr.’s recent historic extension. But their approach differs in another important respect. For while San Diego had signed Manny Machado and had a farm system brimming with talent, they weren’t quite ready to take on the Dodgers when Tatis made the Opening Day roster in 2019. That didn’t stop them. Tatis and Kelenic aren’t the same player, and only time will tell if Kelenic is worthy of a deal as monumental as the one Tatis just signed. But the Padres’ treatment of their young shortstop suggests a different approach is possible.

It all points to a system that is broken; the service time game is at fault more than its players. Kris Bryant didn’t win his grievance, the result of a situation where the actions that netted the Cubs an extra year of control were just as obvious (albeit not so obviously or publicly described), and Kelenic and Scoffield, should they file, face an uphill battle. It’s not that service time manipulation is legal per se, as much as Bryant’s 2019 case shows that teams are given wide latitude when determining a player’s readiness. After all, Dipoto might not be wrong, at least about that.

The fact that service time and economic considerations prevent the best product from being put on the field is infuriating. It also suggests that the answer to situations like this lies in fixing the rule. The easiest solution, at least on the surface, is one that starts a player’s clock the second he signs. Various time-frames have been thrown out, including eight years for college picks, 10 for high school draftees, and 12 for international signees. JUCO ball and the varying ages of foreign-born amateur players muddles things a bit, leading some to simply suggest an age, which would make for a simpler rule that allows players to become free agents before the season in which they turn 29, or 28, or 30. Under such a structure, if the player is good enough, they play. As a result, they give even more in terms of years and production to the team that signed and developed them. The exact years or ages are up to the MLBPA and the commissioner’s office to sort out, and the complications don’t end there; such an agreement could force all professional players into the union, which would be great for them but also makes the proposal a likely non-starter for Manfred and his associates. Still, it’s a start, and a necessary one. There are far more franchises like the Mariners than there are like the Padres these days.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Mike
Member
Mike

There should be a decent incentive for the owners to fix this issue. Its much easier to sell tickets when your team is garbage if there are one or two prospects that the fanbase can get excited about.

The problem is most the proposed solutions are trying to tackle two problems at once. 1) what percentage of revenue should players be getting and 2) how should that revenue be divided up between veterans, young MLBers, and minor leaguers. That makes the owners resistant to any change that leads to a straight player salary increase without an offset. Its unfortunate because it ends up with an inferior product on the field which ultimately is going to further hurt revenue 5-10 years down the line in the form of a lower fanbase. But it seems like few on either side of these negotiations are willing to take a long term perspective.

martyvan90
Member
martyvan90

Your point about multiple problem solutions being difficult is a fair one. Actually there are parties on the MLBPA side that don’t want revenue sharing. High end players and especially agents. Obviously the high end (high revenue) owners don’t want to pool their revenue, make smaller market teams competitive, and (potentially) devalue their team’s value.

Mike
Member
Mike

I didn’t know that but it makes sense because for the math to work on increasing minor league salaries/ less arb years it means that Trout, Cole, etc. are taking less money. And you’ll notice Cole and 4 other Boras Corp clients make up the player leadership for the MLBPA

dan
Member
Member
dan

Yes. And it’s also easier to sell tickets when you’re winning.

I personally hate when organizations keep one or two guys. Why? Deal them, too, and start over. Nobody is going to the ballparks to see 8 randos and then a guy who gets on base one out of every 4 times.

weekendatbidens
Member
weekendatbidens

It’s true but sad. Fans don’t love the game the way they used to. It’s all about celebrity and greatness. Too bad people don’t see it that these randos can be pretty fun themselves.

averagejoe15
Member
Member
averagejoe15

In fairness, if he only gets on base 1 out of four times you probably aren’t getting much for him. But if a guy is young enough I can see the argument for keeping him.

ascheff
Member
Member
ascheff

“Its much easier to sell tickets when your team is garbage if there are one or two prospects that the fanbase can get excited about.”

I don’t think that statement is actually true. I’ve gone back a few decades in the attendance tracker on baseball-reference, and while success does increase attendance, it’s pretty much always a lagging indicator. Attendance goes up after a team is good and never before, even if they are stacked with young talent. Just look at the 2010-2011 Nationals (who had Strasburg and then Harper percolating up through the farm system), the 2011-2013 Royals (who had most of the core that would send them to back to back World Series breaking through at the major league level), or the 2014 Houston Astros (mediocre big league team with a stacked farm system and a bunch of promising youngsters).

None of those teams saw attendance spikes until after the team became good at the MLB level. The Padres had a minor rise in attendance in 2019 after starting Tatis Jr. in the majors on opening day, but they also signed Machado that offseason, and even that attendance number was lower than their 2015 attendance, which was the season they went all in and traded for the Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Craig Kimbrel. I don’t think that’s very strong evidence that not holding Tatis Jr. down to manipulate his service time sold a lot of tickets. Now obviously if there were no COVID restrictions, the 2021 Padres would have a very healthy attendance, but that’s because the team was very, very good last year.

weekendatbidens
Member
weekendatbidens

I wonder what the tv ratings look like though? Do they see a bounce?

channelclemente
Member

Unfortunately, it’s not what’s true, it’s what owners believe to be true.

2skupz
Member
2skupz

It’s what they feel they can sell to us as true.

Mike
Member
Mike

I should clarify, I meant 1-2 prospects debuting, not farm system rankings. I.E. you want to structure the arb system where the Mariners have Kelenic in their opening day roster if he’s the best option vs sending him to Tacoma for 3 weeks to work on his defense. So the proper years to compare would be Strasburg’s debut (2010) and Harper’s (2012). Both those years attendance was up Y/Y (though the team was better so I don’t think it makes either of our points).

You also do have to remember overall attendance in MLB has gone from 79m in 2007 to 68m in 2019