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Seattle Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic says team is punishing him for refusing to sign contract extension

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Prized outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday that he is a victim of service-time manipulation by the Seattle Mariners, and is being punished for refusing to sign a contract proposal nearly 14 months ago.

Kelenic, one of the top five prospects in baseball according to MLB.com, said he was offered a guaranteed contract, but says that declining the deal has kept him off the Mariners’ big-league roster.

“It was communicated to Jarred that had he signed that contract, he would have debuted last year,’’ said Brodie Scoffield, who represents Kelenic. “It was made crystal clear to Jarred — then and now — that his decision not to call him up is based on service time.

“There’s no question that if he signed that contract, he would have been in the big leagues."

Said Kelenic, who spent last year in the Mariners’ alternate camp: “It wasn’t just communicated one time to me. It was told to me several times. That’s the God’s honest truth. It got old.’’

During a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday morning, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto denied that Kelenic would be kept in the minors for any reason but development. On Tuesday evening, he declined to publicly comment on Kelenic’s claims he would be on the big-league roster if he signed a contract extension.

The Mariners concede they told Kelenic he would be on their 40-man roster in 2020 if he signed, starting the year in Class AA, with a chance to be on the big-league team by the end of the year. But they insist no promises were made.

Kelenic’s frustrations turned to anger Sunday when Mariners CEO Kevin Mather informed a local rotary club that Kelenic would be kept in the minors to open the season, delaying his free agency for the second consecutive year. Players become free agents upon reaching six years of major league service time and are free to sign with any team.

Mather, who resigned Monday, also said the Mariners had no intention in calling up any of their top prospects last year despite vying for a playoff berth, finishing the year two games behind the Houston Astros for a playoff berth.

Kelenic during spring training in 2020.

“I was extremely disappointed,’’ Kelenic said. “I worked extremely hard all offseason. And last year, here you have a team that is one game out of the playoffs going into the last weeks of the season. I know for a fact I could have helped that team out. Not just me, but there are other guys who could have helped that team out.

“Not to be given that opportunity was so beyond frustrating. I feel that guys should be rewarded for their play, and have the best guys on the field, especially when you talk about a team that hasn’t gone to the playoffs in 20 years, and your best prospects are just sitting there watching.’’

Dipoto apologized to the Mariners’ players before their first full-squad workout Monday for Mather’s comments, insisting it did not reflect the way the organization truly felt about their players.

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How was it received?

“Strange,’’ Kelenic said. “It was literally like someone farted in church. That is the exact expression on everybody’s face.’’

Dipoto personally apologized to Kelenic for Mather’s comments towards him, but the conversation was brief, with no sign the organization had different plans for him.

“I'm not sure how you construe a service-time manipulation with a 21-year old player who has played (21) games above A-ball,’’ Dipoto said on a Zoom call, “and has not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player. That would be an unprecedented run to the big leagues that hasn’t happened in three decades (since Alex Rodriguez in 1994).

“While Jarred is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure that he has checked off the boxes in development because it's incumbent on us, not just for the good of the Mariners, but for the benefit of Jarred Kelenic to make sure he has been fully developed.’’

Kelenic and his agents, Scoffield and Chris Amezquita, aren’t buying it. Neither is the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is exploring filing a grievance against the Mariners.

“This was always an open secret in baseball,’’ Scoffield said. “Now we have a club official on video proving it.’’

Mather, during his rotary club video call, exposed the organization’s strategy with Kelenic, saying they planned to manipulate his service time, which violates the collective bargaining agreement.

“Quite frankly, we think he’s going to be a superstar,” Mather said. “We control his major league career for six years. And after six years, he’ll be a free agent. We would like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably Triple-A Tacoma, for a month and then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile Park for the next six or seven years.”

Kelenic knew the truth before the video. He has no doubt he’s ready for the big leagues now, but that he’s being punished for not accepting their club-friendly deal. First baseman Evan White, who signed a six-year, $24 million contract before last season, spent the entire year in the big leagues. Pitcher Logan Gilbert, who also declined a long-term contract, remained in the alternate camp with Kelenic.

“Money shouldn’t determine when a player is called up to the big leagues,’’ said Kelenic, the sixth-overall draft pick in 2018 by the New York Mets who was sent to Seattle in the Robinson Cano trade.

“This should be an exciting time for baseball. We had such a negative year with Covid and everything shutting down. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

“Now, the day before spring training, this is what I have to deal with.’’

Kelenic was comforted by not only most of his teammates, but a bevy of powerful voices throughout the game, everyone from the players union to Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson to New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and manager Aaron Boone.

“I’m fortunate to be in an organization where we don’t do that,’’ Boone said. “When guys are ready or we feel like they’re ready to impact the club, that’s that. “Purposely holding a guy down, I don’t think it should have a place in our game.’’

Kelenic, aware that he could be the poster boy for the union’s negotiations with MLB over service time in the next collective bargaining agreement, refuses to be bitter. He loves Seattle. He has been overwhelmed by the fan support. And he believes their young team are on their way to soon becoming a playoff contender.

Yet, he also thinks this conflict causes a deeper chasm between the players and front office, which threatens harmony  throughout the organization.

“The reason I was so disappointed and frustrated about this whole thing,’’ Kelenic said, “is that everybody already knows there’s a gap between the front office and players. When something like this comes out, it makes that gap bigger.

“It makes winning that much more difficult. I thought we were in a positive direction with the team moving forward, building a culture, and when this comes out, it widened that gap.’’

The Mariners insist it had nothing to do with money. They called up outfielder Kyle Lewis and pitcher Justin Dunn in September, 2019, starting their service clock. They wanted Kelenic and a slew of other young players to be in their alternate camp to avoid losing a year of development. Still, Kelenic’s development would have been better served, Scoffield said, by being in the big leagues than getting a dozen at-bats a week in the alternate camp.

The Mariners insist that the time is coming, and that Kelenic should be in the big leagues this season, but just not right away. If they didn’t have big plans for him, they would have signed a left-handed hitting outfielder this winter, but did not want to block Kelenic’s path to Seattle.

Kelenic, ready to embrace the role of being one of the next faces of baseball, vows to keep a positive attitude. He wants to prove to the Mariners they’re making a huge mistake by keeping him down in the minors. When he finally arrives to the big leagues, they’ll see what they were missing.

“I still love the fans, and the city,’’ he said. “This doesn’t change anything towards Seattle or the fans or the team. If anything, I’m more motivated to bring a World Series championship to Seattle. That’s how I feel.

“All I envision is helping my team win championships and get World Series rings. That’s what drives me every single day, to be the best possible player I can be, and win with this group of guys.

“But when that opportunity isn’t given to you, even when you’re performing and deserve it, it’s frustrating.’’

The Mariners may disagree, saying they’ve got a spot for him when he’s ready, , but certainly don’t want to harness his bravado. They predict Kelenic could be a star. And if Kelenic has his sights on the Hall of Fame, refusing to be satisfied by being a perennial All-Star with a few championship rings on his hand, who are they to take his visions away?

The Mariners are pleading for patience.

Kelenic is all out, believing his time is now, or really past now.

“You hear the same thing over and over,’’ Kelenic says. “It just gets so old. You try to block it out, but it’s always there, knowing it’s all about service time.

“This is an issue that needs to be resolved, not just for me, but for all of us, for the good of the game.’’

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