Thursday, February 22, 2024

THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: Kelenic, Gilbert getting a big-league education now is a gamble

| May 17, 2021 1:03 AM

Jerry went for the quick jolt of excitement.

The Mariners were scuffling, nobody was hitting and things they desperately needed — like, real thrills at the ballpark — were just not happening.

Beyond that…

Seattle’s entire fan base had been hearing all about those kids in the farm system, a group ranked anywhere from second to sixth in all of baseball (depending on which source you check).

In GM Jerry Dipoto’s own words, the Mariners have “wave after wave” of high-end prospects littering their minor league system, so…

To inject some instant flash and dash into a club that had lost four straight at the time, Dipoto summoned outfielder Jarred Kelenic and starting pitcher Logan Gilbert to begin their major league careers last Thursday night.

We saw the debuts.

Cleveland seemed unimpressed with all the hoopla, and promptly added a fifth straight loss to the pile, beating Gilbert — four runs in four innings — and keeping Kelenic hitless.

One night later, though, Kelenic hit his first major league homer, added two doubles and fired up the entire Northwest.

Then came two more hitless games and a .167 average (3 for 18) after four games against Cleveland’s rugged staff.

Welcome to the bigs, son.

HOW THE kids managed in their MLB openers and what they do this month isn’t that important.


Baseball is sports’ equivalent of The Long March, and (hopefully) both Kelenic and Gilbert will be able to thrill Mariners fans for years.

To tell the truth, I suspect Dipoto would rather have kept both of these young talents at AAA Tacoma.

Let Kelenic deal with some crafty pitchers who are willing to throw breaking balls on 3-and-2, and give Gilbert some innings to stretch out, face a few veteran hitters with men on base, learn how to hold runners.

In each case, these kids need more time simply to learn the cut and thrust of professional baseball.

Look, maybe Kelenic will rake for the next month and keep right on going.

Perhaps Gilbert will settle into the starting rotation as though he’s been there all his life.

That would be great.

It also would be very, very unusual.

For all his gifts (and there are plenty), Kelenic has barely scraped more than a hundred at-bats above Single-A ball.

That’s a rocket ride to the majors.

Ditto, Gilbert.

The 6-foot-6 righthander threw the ball pretty well in his first start, but he learned that if you don’t have your best off-speed stuff, it might be best to put it in your pocket for a couple of innings.

Gilbert was desperate to show something besides his fastball (which runs up in the zone and looks really useful), so he threw back-to-back curves to Franmil Reyes in the second inning.

Logan hung the second one, and Reyes hit a fly ball to center that carried all the way out.

Lesson: Float something slow over the middle of the plate to a big-league power hitter, and you’re not likely to get it back.

An inning later, he used too much of the plate with an inside fastball, and Jose Ramirez hammered it into the crowd in right for a two-run homer.

Lesson: Some hitters need special treatment.

Know your own stuff precisely before challenging a guy like Ramirez.

That comes later on the development curve.

I’VE SAID this before, but I grew up as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Willie Mays was the greatest, but my hero was big Willie McCovey, who played in the 1960s and 70s.

McCovey made his Giants debut in 1959, and he was called up from AAA Phoenix because the club in San Francisco was struggling to score runs.

Mac had a pretty good case, too, since he was hitting .372 when the Giants finally summoned him.

The rest is history, but my point is that McCovey didn’t get called to San Francisco until July 31 — after he’d whacked 26 doubles, 11 triples and 29 home runs (with 92 RBIs) in four months, to go along with that gaudy average.

Yes, that was a different era.

Major league clubs of the day were stocked with tremendous talent, but still…

Look at those numbers.

What I’m saying is that McCovey’s work in the minors, like Mays before him (the Say Hey Kid was hitting .477 in AAA Minneapolis), left him confident and ready for whatever he was going to see in the majors.

You can bet minor league pitchers threw everything but the rosin bag at the two Willies — and probably knocked them down a few times — in what amounted to a serious education in hitting.

BACK TO the present…

If the Mariners want to get this “build toward permanent contention” thing absolutely right, they’d be better off letting their gifted young players get the competition they need at Tacoma.

Lots of at-bats, understanding how to use the whole field.

Lots of innings for the pitchers, building up as they go, working on off-speed stuff until it’s second nature.

You can’t do that in Seattle.

Julio Rodriguez has already started to rock and roll pitchers at High-A Everett (four homers in 11 games, nine-game hitting streak), and barely a week into the season, there are howls to hurry him through the system.

No, no, no.

Not with any of these guys.

We’ve already seen Evan White struggle mightily with the M’s, even though I think he’s going to be a hell of a hitter.

But with no minor leagues in 2020, White had to stay with the Mariners and let big-league pitchers carve him up.

Now, he’s woefully short of confidence.

White should be in Tacoma and, for the moment, so should Kelenic and Gilbert.

The Mariners, unfortunately, needed a shot of adrenaline.

It may wind up costing some very good players a few months’ worth of progress.

And I think Dipoto knows it.

The gamble was enticing, though, and he decided to bite.

Now it’s about hoping for the best.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published monthly during the off season.

The next Zags Tracker will run on Tuesday, May 25.