That’s not entirely accurate: Raleigh’s stay in Tacoma was short, as he earned a ticket back to the big leagues earlier this month, but only after catcher Tom Murphy landed on the injured list.
All three players, under the age of 25, seemingly have seen their development stunted, halted, whatever you want to call it, after they not only landed spots on the team’s Opening Day roster but were expected to be key contributors to a team that entered the season with postseason aspirations.
So what happened? As it turns out, this is not just a Mariners question, but one that many other big-league teams are facing as their prospects and young service-time players have failed to live up to their billing, at least early on.
There’s a belief in baseball circles that we’re seeing the effects of the lost season of minor-league baseball in 2020, when the pandemic wiped out the entire season, robbing many of these players of critical development time.
“I’m convinced that’s what we’re watching,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto told The Athletic recently. “You are seeing guys that, through no fault of their own, missed out on 500, 600 plate appearances and maybe more, and their development was accelerated.
“You’re constantly trying to create challenges and force players through some level of adversity before they have to face it in the big leagues. Facing adversity (here) is a really hard lesson to learn. I’m watching that happen. ”
There are many reasons why the Mariners have dropped 19 of their past 26 games, some more salient than others. Let’s be honest, it’s not a short list. The offense has underperformed, the pitching staff has an ERA over 5.00 this month, and injuries have tested the club’s depth.
But, in the case of the Mariners, who were counting on Kelenic, Raleigh and Brash to help move the needle in 2022, the struggles this season has brought to each have certainly been contributing factors in Seattle’s recent run of misery.
The Mariners certainly aren’t alone in this regard.
Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft by the Tigerscracked Detroit’s Opening Day roster having played only 121 games in the minors in 2021. He’s 22 and hitting .186 in the major leagues this season. Joey Bart of the Giants was a first-round pick in 2018, got 130 games in the minors in 2018-19 and made it to the big leagues in 2020, hitting just .233. He’s currently hitting .171 for San Francisco.
The Cubs‘ Nick Madrigal was a hitting machine in the minors (.309 average) but only got 29 games in the big leagues in 2020. After a promising 2021 with the White Sox (.305 average in 54 games), he’s hitting .203 with the Cubs. Kansas City‘s Bobby Witt Jr. will turn 22 next month and has 497 career minor-league at-bats. He’s hitting .221 in the big leagues.
“A vast majority of young prospects have struggled to get over the hump. And I do not think that’s common, ”Dipoto said.
You do not have to look too far to find young position players struggling in the big leagues. With offense down, and also velocity and stuff up from many of baseball’s top pitchers, it’s a tough time for young position players to find success offensively.
“I think it affected a lot of players and a lot of organizations,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “When you take a young prospect trending towards the big leagues and you remove the game from him – I know they were working out and stuff (at the alternate site) – but it hurts their physical development and also their mental development.”
Removing a full season from their development arc, as was the case in 2020, hit some players worse than others. And while there’s no way to absolutely quantify these struggles as being the byproduct of that loss summer, many believe it certainly has been a contributing factor.
I think it does (have an effect). I think any lost development time is critical. Especially when we’re asking players to get to the big leagues so fast, ”said Detroit manager AJ Hinch. “It’s hard to ask them to get there this fast and take away critical time.”
Many of these players, Kelenic and Raleigh included, took part in the Mariners’ summer camp at T-Mobile Park during the summer of 2020 before the truncated 60-game season started. They then headed to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma for the team’s alternate site. There were workouts and live scrimmages in an empty ballpark.
Because there was not a full roster of players participating in the alt site, some coaches and instructors had to play in the field during scrimmages. Occasionally, there were only two outfielders. This scene probably looked the same at various alt sites that summer.
“I understand it’s some development (alt site) because guys got to participate, but there’s no substitute for playing games, success, failure, trying out things, having to make adjustments, playing in front of people, the scoreboard and your numbers,” Hinch said. “I imagine (young players struggling) is a byproduct of losing time and also rushing guys to the big leagues faster than ever.”
The general consensus on the alt site? It was better than nothing.
“I think the Mariners did the best they could, and tried to make those as game-like as possible, but it was not an ideal situation,” Kelenic said recently before he was sent to Tacoma. “Some days were harder (to deal with) than others. But you just kind of accepted it. ”
Kelenic hit .286 the summer he was drafted in the first round by the Mets in 2018, was traded to Seattle that winter, and then hit a combined .291 with 23 home runs in three minor-league stops in 2019, reaching Double A by the age of 19. The missed season of 2020 likely derailed him to some degree , though he can not be sure how much.
“It’s hard to say for sure, but if you look at it, it’s really no different than when a little kid misses a year of school,” Kelenic said. “The learning skills you’ve missed, but also social skills and interacting with other kids, I think that’s huge. I think, in a way, it’s similar. But again, you do not know what you lost because it did not happen. “
By now, we all know what has happened to Kelenic since. He struggled in 2021, though he was better when he came back from Tacoma in the summer. This year, he was hitting .140 in 86 at-bats when he was sent to Triple A earlier this month.
“If you go back and look at Jarred’s minor-league track record, it’s irrefutably good. The top levels of it were shortened… some of that was because he was so good, ”Dipoto said.
Raleigh finished the 2019 season by hitting in 39 games with Double-A Arkansas. In 2021, he started the season with Tacoma and hit .324 in a league notorious for hitters. Could he have benefited from a full season in Arkansas in 2020? Maybe. Since then, Raleigh has been hitting .157 in 185 major-league at-bats.
Brash, who won the No. 5 starting spot this spring but was sent to Tacoma after posting a 7.65 ERA in five starts, pitched all of 5 1/3 innings professionally before the pandemic. And while he thrived in 2021, you have to wonder if he would have been better prepared for the big leagues had he had a full 2020 season of innings and development.
“We did not know how to place them back into the mix, or manage innings totals, or the workload. So I do think there are some challenges there, ”Dipoto said. “You couple that with where they’re now entering a league – especially for an offensive player – where there has not been a harder time to hit in decades than what we’re looking at.
“If we go back four years ago, the average player had something like 1,600-2,000 plate appearances as a minor leaguer. The accelerated player might be looking at something in the 1,200-1,400 range. Now, those same players have moved through that level in half the time. Some have adapted, some have not. It’s always case to case. ”
Aside from missing the plate appearances and competitive games and the ancillary things that go with that, there’s still another component that got lost in that missing season: That’s the mental side, Servais said.
“Everybody had to deal with it, so it’s not an excuse… but somewhere we need to have some conversations about it when we talk about how they did not get that developmental time,” Servais said. “Maybe that’s 120 games out of a 140-game season? You can not get that back. Everyone learns no much during that time. When you do not have it, it’s gone. It’s not just baseball, but you think about young people in general, whether you were doing homeschooling and how that’s affected lives. ”
So now what? What do the Mariners and other teams do moving forward? Will the lost summer of 2020 force teams into rethinking their player development models in some cases? Will position players get more games at a particular level – even if, in the past, the Mariners may have moved them up quicker? We’re about to find out.
“I do not know how we are going to make up for it, but I do know our opinion of the number of reps required in the minor leagues has to change… the preparedness of a major-league player and what to expect when he arrives in the big leagues has to change, ”Dipoto said.
“We have to rethink what a player’s development looks like. We have to change our sights for the development process at the big leagues, because we’re watching young players try to develop at the big-league level and that’s hard to do. The pandemic happened but the time clock did not change. Players are still a year older.
“We did not adjust that part of it to adapt for the pandemic. Time marches on. It’s going to be a couple of years down the road before we really get on the other side of this. ”
– The Athletic‘s Cody Stavenhagen contributed to this story.
(Photo of Jarred Kelenic: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)