The Mariners announced that they have reinstated infielder Shed Long from the 60-day injured list, optioned outfielder Jarred Kelenic to Triple-A Tacoma and transferred infielder/outfielder Sam Haggerty to the 60-day IL with right shoulder inflammation.
Kelenic, one of the game’s most touted prospects, reached the majors for the first time in the middle of May. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old could only produce an .096/.185/.193 line over his first 92 plate appearances in the bigs, punching out at a 28.3 percent clip along the way. Kelenic drew walks at a solid 8.7 percent clip, connected on a pair of homers and went 3-for-3 in stolen base attempts, but it was still far from the debut most hoped to see.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that even the most-hyped prospects in the sport don’t hit the ground running all the time. Kelenic in particular was rather aggressively pushed through the minors, perhaps in part due to former Mariners president Kevin Mather rather blatantly broadcasting the organization’s plans to hold him in the minors for service time purposes, regardless of performance in Spring Training or early in the season.
Kelenic played just 21 Double-A games in 2019, and while he was with the club’s alternate site in 2020, he didn’t actually play in competitive games against other organizations last year. The delayed start to the minor league season meant more of the same intra-squad action for Kelenic to begin the 2021 campaign, and while that certainly carries some developmental value, it’s not the same as actual competition against other clubs. He utterly destroyed Triple-A pitching when the minor league season finally got underway in May, but he only played in six games before being summoned to the Majors.
The service time issue raised by Mather shined a spotlight on Kelenic’s ascension to the Majors, so it’s worth looking at just how a return to Triple-A will now impact his service clock. Kelenic was already guaranteed to finish the season shy of one year of service, so it’s unlikely his path to free agency will be further delayed by this demotion. He was always going to finish this year with between zero and one year of service, finish the 2022 season between one and two years, the 2023 season between two and three years, and so on, up until the completion of the 2027 season.
Kelenic accrued 26 days of Major League service time in his first run through the big leagues. In order for that free-agent calculus to change, he’d need to spend fewer than 146 days in the Majors between 2021 and 2022 combined. That seems decidedly unlikely, barring an untimely major injury or injuries sustained while playing at the minor league level. What today’s demotion could do, however, is impact whether Kelenic eventually qualifies as a Super Two player who’d be eligible for arbitration four times (assuming the arbitration system as we know it remains intact in the next collective bargaining agreement, which isn’t a given).
Super Two designation is awarded to the top 22 percent of players (in terms of service time) who have between two and three years of service in a given season. Generally speaking, prospects who are called up in mid-to-late June and stick in the big leagues end up falling just shy of Super Two status. Kelenic’s early-May promotion had him on track for Super Two status, but if he were to spend another four to six weeks in the minors, he could fall into a more traditional arbitration schedule.
There’s obviously no indication as to how long the club plans to keep him down for at the moment, and he’ll probably control his own fate to some extent. If he immediately takes the Pacific Coast League by storm and continues hitting near the .370/.414/.630 pace he did in his brief Triple-A showing earlier this year, his stay in the minors could prove brief. If Kelenic’s struggles persist in Tacoma, however, it’s feasible that the early struggles could cost him one trip through arbitration.
With Kelenic now back in Tacoma and Kyle Lewis facing a prolonged absence due to another knee injury, the Mariners’ promising young outfield has a much different look. Fellow top prospect Taylor Trammell is back for a second look after dominating Triple-A himself (the exact path the Mariners no doubt hope Kelenic will travel in the coming weeks). He’ll handle center field. Mitch Haniger has been excellent in right field all season and should remain the primary option there, though he’s also a logical trade candidate, particularly if the Mariners slip further below .500. (They’re currently 30-31.) Seattle also recently got 26-year-old Jake Fraley back from a notable hamstring strain, so he could step into Kelenic’s spot in left. Utilityman Donovan Walton could see some occasional time there, and Long has logged time in left field in the past as well.
Speaking of the now-25-year-old Long, he’s now set for his 2021 debut after spending months working back from the surgery he underwent on his right tibia last September. The former Reds prospect impressed in his first major league action in 2019, when he batted .263/.333/.454 with five home runs and three stolen bases in 168 plate appearances, but he was unable to build on that in 2020 as he attempted to play through a stress fracture that eventually led to that September surgery.
Long took 128 plate appearances last summer but posted a disastrous .171/.242/.291 with three homers and four steals before landing on the injured list. It’s admirable that he tried to gut things out, but the injury was clearly hindering him at the plate. He’ll now get a fresh chance, presumably at full health, to prove he’s more the 2019 version of himself than the 2020 version.