The Seattle Mariners demoted outfielder Jarred Kelenic to the minors on Friday evening, just as former team president Kevin Mather said they would during the February call with a local rotary club that precipitated his termination. In addition to making offensive comments about prospect Julio Rodriguez and retired pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma's English-speaking abilities and suggesting the neighborhood around the Mariners' ballpark was unsafe, Mather all but admitted that the team had and were intending to further suppress their top prospects' service time to save money.
"We'd like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably at Triple-A for a month," Mather said, "then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile part of the next six or seven years, then he'll be a free agent. He won't commit beyond his free agent years."
Kelenic performed well in nine games this spring, hitting .333/.478/.778 with two home runs and three more walks than strikeouts in 23 plate appearances. His chances of forcing the Mariners' hands were dashed when he suffered an abductor strain in his knee in early March. Kelenic missed roughly two weeks with the injury.
Kelenic entered the spring regarded as the top prospect in the Mariners system, and the third best in all of baseball, per CBS Sports. Here's the reasoning:
Kelenic probably would've made his big-league debut in 2020 with a normal season. Alas, he'll have to wait until 2021. Kelenic has the means to make up for lost time; he's an advanced hitter who should contribute across the triple-slash categories. He has a simple, in-control swing that nonetheless permits him to generate easy, above-average power. Kelenic isn't going to win a Gold Glove in center field, in all likelihood, but he's playable there and may improve. As an added bonus, he should be able to steal a handful (or two) of bases a year as well.
MLB players qualify for free agency by amassing six full years of big-league service. By keeping Kelenic down for a month, as Mather suggested the Mariners would, the team would push his free agency back by a winter. The Mariners could, theoretically, attempt to keep Kelenic down even longer, as a means of reducing his chances of earning a fourth year of arbitration, but doing so would almost certainly trigger a grievance. (It's worth noting that the minor-league season will not begin for more than a month, meaning it's possible Kelenic could come up without taking a single additional official minor-league plate appearance.)
Kelenic's injury combined with the unusual developmental circumstances of the past year-plus, meanwhile, will likely grant the Mariners enough cover to get away with keeping him down for a month without facing potential repercussions.