Salk: Patient Mariners are doing things the right way with Jarred Kelenic

“Patience is the shortcut.” As you might recall, that was the sign hanging in the baseball operations office during the Mariners’ rebuild.

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It reminded them not to cut corners. It was a warning not to get greedy. It was a promise that if they did this thoroughly, they would be rewarded with a contending team that would get multiple bites at the apple.

It worked.

They followed their own advice and ended the drought.

Now, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some aggressive moves made along the way. They signed Robbie Ray, traded major resources for Luis Castillo, and went hard after Trevor Story. But they have remained true to the plan and it has put them in a great spot heading into 2023.

This offseason seemed like it might be the time to change the philosophy. To replace patience with aggressiveness to achieve the short-term goal that now seems within reach. Certainly, some fans wanted that to happen. They wanted to be better at second base/shortstop and they wanted to improve in left field. I get it. But I think what the Mariners did might end up working out better.

Upgrading second base seemed easy. “Just sign one of the big name shortstops and move JP Crawford to second base!” Obviously. But those big-name shortstops ended up getting crazy deals for more years and money than they are worth. The market went nuts. And a team with a tremendous core of young players was smart to plan ahead for their eventual paydays, which are not far off. Keeping the core together – the core they believe in – was more important than bringing in a shortstop in his 30s.

So, instead they … upgraded second base. Exactly what they needed to do. Kolten Wong accomplishes that goal, and he leaves them in a flexible position to develop, trade for, or sign someone else to take over long-term.

Wong may not be Trea Turner, but he is a legit major league option who will make them better than they were last year. Second base is not a hole in this lineup.

But left field? That is a different question altogether.

Left field is, by any measure of past performance, a hole. It is currently the biggest question mark on this team. As much as I believe Jarred Kelenic is capable of figuring it out, there is nothing in his major league experience to say that is going to happen. Sure, there are comps to other players who debuted too young and eventually figured out the major leagues.

Trot Nixon was similar in many ways. he was the no 7 pick out of high school in 1993 to the Red Sox. Kelenic went sixth overall in 2018. Nixon was a left-handed hitting outfielder with incredible work ethic, all the physical tools and strength, and a family that pushed him really hard. Kelenic fits that exact description. Nixon watched as Nomar Garciaparra, drafted the following year by the same organization, zoomed past him and became an instant success and fan favorite while he couldn’t get his major league career on track. Kelenic has watched Julio Rodríguez do the same.

But in 1999, after a couple of short stints in the majors, Nixon got a job. He played the entire season for Boston that year, but batted ninth for 372 of his 447 plate appearances while 43 more came batting eighth. The Red Sox took all the pressure off him, and then they made his life easier. He took just 50 plate appearances against lefties that year and just five against left-handed starters.

Nixon never became a star, but he had an .830 OPS that year and went on to a very productive career, playing a key role in the 2004 World Series. If Kelenic has Nixon’s career, that would be a win.

And oh yeah, Nixon was 25 that year. Kelenic is still just 23.

“But Mike,” you say, “That’s just one example! Certainly that isn’t enough to make you believe Kelenic is going to figure it out this season!”

You are 100% correct. There are other success stories like Trot’s, but probably more like the familiar tale of Dustin Ackley, Jeremy Reed and other failed Mariners prospects of the past. So while I still have hope, I’m not under any illusion that a Kelenic breakthrough is a sure thing, or even the most likely scenario.

But that’s OK. Major league teams can have holes in February and March. They can give those holes time to sort themselves out in April, May and possibly June. If Kelenic falls on his face, it won’t be the thing that keeps this team from making the playoffs again or challenging for a World Series. A lot more will have had to go wrong. Remember, this team is built on pitching and defense. They can withstand a lack of production in left for a few months.

The Mariners are putting a lot of trust into Jarred Kelenic. They are protecting him with a platoon bat (in this case, AJ Pollock) and I hope they keep him at the bottom of the order. They are attempting to put him in the best position to succeed. If he reaches his potential, it will be a mammoth win for this organization and a huge piece of their future falling into place. It will allow them to use their resources elsewhere.

But if he does fall on his face, they are in position to correct that! Yes, they have Pollock, Taylor Trammell and Cooper Hummel in house, but finding a productive left fielder mid-season shouldn’t be a problem. I’d bet they have a target or two right now that they could bring in via trade if that becomes necessary. They certainly have the young assets to do so.

Theo Epstein once said that every team has at least one question mark heading into the season. In most cases, he’s right. The 2023 Braves, are stacked but who is playing left field in Atlanta? The Yankees have a gigantic payroll but somehow are still rolling out Aaron Hicks.

It’s OK to have unknowns, even when you are a contender.

But the Mariners are doing this the right way. They are giving their mega-talented young player the best chance he’s had to succeed. If it works, they’ll be stacked. But like the top investment firms, they have hedged their bet with other options. You can’t find out if Kelenic has it without giving him a chance to prove it. You have to show just a little more patience. After all, it’s a strategy that has paid dividends so far.

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