The Mariners announced this afternoon they’ve claimed right-hander Adrian Sampson off waivers from the Cubs. They’ve also selected outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the big leagues in place of Jarred Kelenic, who was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma. Seattle also reinstated Sergio Romo from the 10-day injured list, optional Danny Young and designated Stuart Fairchild and Yohan Ramirez for assignment to clear 40-man roster space for Sampson and Souza.
Kelenic’s demotion is the most notable of Seattle’s spate of moves. A former sixth overall pick and top prospect, Kelenic has yet to produce against big league pitching. He struggled to a .181/.265/.350 line over his first 377 MLB plate appearances last season, striking out in 28.1% of his trips while hitting only .216 on balls in play. The M’s surely hoped to see more from the left-handed hitting outfielder in the early going this season, but that hasn’t yet been the case.
Through 30 games, Kelenic owns just a .140/.219/.291 mark. The youngster has gone down on strikes 36 times while making contact on only 67.8% of his swings. That’s the 12th-lowest contact rate among 192 batters with at least 90 plate appearances, and the M’s have decided it’s time for a reset against Triple-A arms. It’s the second time in as many years that Kelenic has been optioned after scuffling against MLB pitching, but he responded well during a month-long stint in the minors last summer.
The timing of Kelenic’s latest option comes rather ironically as the M’s are headed to Queens for a weekend series with the Mets. New York, of course, originally drafted him and included him in the controversial Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz swap. That looked to be a coup for Seattle given Kelenic’s prospect pedigree, but he’ll obviously need to perform better whenever the M’s bring him back to the big leagues. There’s plenty of time to do so, as he won’t turn 23 years old until July. Because of the canceled minor league season in 2020, the Wisconsin native has still only played 51 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Barring an exceptionally long stint, the demotion doesn’t seem likely to affect his path to free agency after the 2027 season. Kelenic entered the year with 105 days of big league service; players are credited with a full service year for spending 172 days on an MLB roster or injured list. He’s increased approximately 36 more days this year, meaning he needs to be in the majors for around a month more to surpass the one-year threshold in 2022. How long this stay in Tacoma lasts will no doubt be determined in large part by Kelenic’s performance there, but it’s hard to imagine the M’s keeping him down until September barring some major struggles against Triple-A pitching.
In the meantime, Seattle will turn to the veteran Souza with Julio Rodriguez, jesse winker and Dylan Moore as outfield options. The 33-year-old has gotten sporadic MLB time with the Cubs and Dodgers over the past couple years, but he hasn’t played a full season in the majors since 2017. Signed to a minor league deal in Spring Training, Souza has gotten off to an excellent start with the Rainiers. He’s hitting .267/.417/.533 with five homers and a massive 19.8% walk rate in 22 games. The 14-18 M’s will see if he can carry over that production against big league arms to inject some life into an outfield that has underwhelmed.
Fairchild was part of that outfield mix very briefly. The 26-year-old was acquired from the Diamondbacks for cash in late April and appeared in three games, going hitless in a trio of plate appearances. A Seattle native, Fairchild was a second-round pick of the Reds in 2017 and has been traded twice in his young career. The M’s will have a week to deal him again or try to run him through outright waivers.
That’s also true of Ramirez, who has pitched in the bigs over the past three seasons. The right-hander owns a 3.97 ERA in 56 2/3 career innings, striking out a strong 28.6% of opponents. He’s also walked 15.2% of batters faced, however, and he’d been tagged for three homers in his first seven outings this year. The Mariners elected to move on, but he works in the mid-90s and has a pair of minor league option years remaining, so it’s possible another club takes a chance on him.
In his place, they’ll bring aboard a multi-inning option from the Cubs. Sampson started five of his ten appearances for Chicago last season, tossing 35 1/3 frames of 2.80 ERA ball. That came with an underwhelming 19.3% strikeout rate and an alarming 2.04 homers allowed per nine innings, but he pounded the strike zone and induced a fair amount of ground-balls. Chicago re-signed the righty to a minor league deal over the winter. He was selected to the big leagues on Sunday, pitched in one game, then was designated for assignment.