Jarred Kelenic’s struggles in MLB hurt service time manipulation arguments

Former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather lost his job when he became too transparent with comments he made about the team in February. Mather spoke with a local Rotary Club and willingly disclosed many intimate details about the team that later got him in trouble.

One of Mather’s biggest blunders was saying to the club members that the team was not going to bring up any of their top prospects last year to avoid starting their service time clocks. Jarred Kelenic, widely recognized as one of the team’s top prospects, was among those affected by the decision.

Mather’s comments reflected poorly upon MLB and confirmed that some teams intentionally keep prospects down in the minors longer than needed, simply for the purpose of being able to retain control of their contractual rights for longer.

Absent an admission like Mather’s, it’s difficult to prove that MLB teams are keeping players down for service time purposes rather than developmental. What happened with Kelenic only hurts the case for young players.

Kelenic was called up last month to great fanfare and even homered in his second career game. He homered again on May 24 and went 2-for-5 on May 25, but then it all went downhill.

Kelenic failed to get a hit thereafter and has been in an 0-for-39 slump. That dragged his average down to .096. He had a .185 on-base percentage and .193 slugging percentage. Accordingly, the Mariners sent Kelenic back down to the minors on Monday.

Kelenic is only 21. He missed all of last season due to the pandemic, which canceled minor league baseball. He only had 83 career Double-A at-bats prior to this year. Kelenic only played in six games in Triple-A this year before being called up. Sure, he may have gone 10-for-27 with a 1.043 OPS in those six games, but his experience above the Single-A level was extremely limited.

There are some cases where it seems very obvious that MLB teams are keeping players down to manipulate service time. But even when a prospect looks ready as Kelenic did, seeing him struggle upon being called up only aids the argument from MLB teams when they say a player needs more development. The point is, determining when a player is “ready” is a very arbitrary process. That is why it is so difficult to govern the matter with rules.