NEW YORK — Dozens of cheerful moments have bloomed from the Mets’ unconventional first-place season, but now it’s getting a brief addition of schadenfreude.
Mega prospect Jarred Kelenic — the one misguidedly traded for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz less than 200 days after being drafted — hasn’t been the surefire, immediate superstar so many Mets fans resigned themselves into believing he would be. Kelenic was sent back to the minor leagues on Monday. He carries an .096 big league batting average with him to the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma. His sculpted, tantalizing shoulders now bear the weight of this early reminder of his first prominent baseball failure.
Kelenic’s story began as a villainous arc, seemingly handwritten to drive Mets’ fans into continued madness. The sixth pick in the 2018 draft, the left-handed crusher out of suburban Wisconsin signed for $4.5 million. He was the first high schooler off the board in a draft that would eventually send collegiate studs Casey Mize, Alec Bohm and Nick Madrigal to the big leagues at a blistering pace. The Mets had, by many accounts, a can’t miss prospect delivered to their doorstep. The dream was for him to complete an outfield triumvirate with Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo and bolster the lineup card for years.
Brodie Van Wagenen had other ideas.
The slick-haired agent turned Mets’ general manager essentially wanted to do his friend a favor. Cano, who Van Wagenen used to represent, was reportedly infatuated with the idea of returning to New York. The second baseman waived his no-trade clause so the Mariners could be free of his monstrous contract, passing it and Diaz to the Mets in exchange for Kelenic and Justin Dunn, a promising player in his own right. In order to appease his former client, and make an ill-advised push for the 2019 playoffs, Van Wagenen jettisoned a foundational part of the Mets’ future.
Fast forward to May 13, 2021, and the Mets caught their first glimpse of what that future may have looked like.
Kelenic debuted for the Mariners on that day, a little over a month into a season from which Cano is suspended entirely for performance-enhancing drugs. While Kelenic went 0 for 4, the next night looked like the first chapter in a new, modernized chronicle of Mets’ misery. His sixth plate appearance introduced the picturesque swing that fans swooned over, as Kelenic launched the type of home run they always dreamed he’d hit at Citi Field.
Two innings later he’d lace a double into the right-center gap, and two innings after that he was legging out a hustle double that collected another RBI.
That three-hit night turned out to be an aberration. It would take Kelenic 35 plate appearances to match that total, as his three-hits-in-two-games entrance gave way to just three in his next eight. May 25 brought his next multi-hit game, and also the last hits of his torturously frustrating initial stint in the big leagues. A decaf cup of coffee, if you will.
Kelenic fell into a brutal 0-for-39 streak (even worse than the 0-for-27 skid that earned Mets legend Cameron Maybin a DFA) with 18 strikeouts. The horrendous slump forced the Mariners to move him out of the leadoff spot where he lived for 17 games. At the time of his demotion, Kelenic’s .096 batting average was backed up with meager on-base (.185) and slugging (.193) percentages, while his 28.3 K percentage paints a picture of how thoroughly tyrannical major league pitching was to him.
Through his first 92 plate appearances, Kelenic swung the bat like a pitcher. In fact, his batting average was worse than the average pitcher, who’s hitting .105 at the time of this writing. Breaking balls really put Kelenic in a blender. Statcast’s pitch tracking data shows Kelenic hitting .067 on the bendy stuff with sliders and curveballs providing strike three on exactly half of his 26 strikeouts. Opponents quickly proved that they were not scared of Kelenic, either. The youngster saw 56.5% of his total pitches in the strike zone, far above the league average of 42.3.
Here it is, son. Let’s see if you can hit it. After repeatedly showing that he could not, at least for now, Kelenic will receive a mental and physical break.
“He just needs to take a breath,” Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto said of his overmatched outfielder. “That’s all this is. We’re not sending him back to Triple-A because he struggled. We’re sending him back to Triple-A to give him a breather and remember how to do the things that he does well.”
To say that he’s not going back to the farm because he struggled is ludicrous. Kelenic nakedly struggled with big league curveballs; his struggles were on display for everyone from Bellingham to Binghamton to see. The whole point of sending him to Triple-A is to try and ensure that things aren’t this bad when he makes his second go-round with the Mariners. Luckily for Seattle, it really couldn’t get much worse.
No, it still was not a good move for the Mets to trade him. Even though Diaz has tightened his grip on the closer role and flashed the type of stuff that made him an All-Star with the M’s, an everyday outfielder is still inherently more valuable than a reliever. That certainly isn’t the case when said outfielder’s batting average begins with a zero, but 92 plate appearances is not a nearly big enough sample size to draw any conclusions, especially for a hitter who’s younger than Lil Nas X.
As the Mets (29-23) perch from their first place standing in the NL East, getting better production from Billy McKinney than their trade partners are getting from Kelenic, it’s another fascinating study of present versus future. Things are going well for the Mets right now — and they wouldn’t trade records with Seattle (30-31) — but that might not always be the case, especially with Kelenic’s dormant talent due for eventual eruption and Conforto’s looming free agency hanging over this wondrous start to the season. A Conforto departure this winter and the Mets once again find themselves with a hole in the outfield, in need of someone to fill it for years to come. They could do worse than a hyper-competitive prodigy who had a 1.140 OPS in big-league spring training as a 21-year-old.
The Mets may be laughing now, but it’s entirely possible they’ll be crying later, both in the joyful short term if Diaz is closing out wins this October, and in the agonizing long term if their deposed prince gets his crown back.