CLEVELAND — When he first learned that the Mets were trying to trade him to the Seattle Mariners last fall, Jarred Kelenic was not even sure it was legal. Hadn’t the Mets just chosen him in the first round of the draft that summer?
Kelenic was at dinner then with teammates at an off-season training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He dismissed the rumor, but it resurfaced a few days later, after he had gone home to Wisconsin.
“My mom called me and she was like, ‘This is probably going to happen,’” Kelenic said on Sunday. “I was like: ‘Mom, this doesn’t happen to first-year guys. It just doesn’t happen.’”
But it did, officially, on Dec. 3, with a deal that could haunt the Mets for years. Brodie Van Wagenen, the former agent who had just become the Mets’ general manager, packaged Kelenic and a previous first-round pick, pitcher Justin Dunn, as part of a seven-player deal for closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano.
To be kind, the move was bold. To be accurate, it was reckless. In acquiring a closer, the Mets were paying dearly for a notoriously volatile — and often easy-to-fill — position. They were also betting that Cano, a former client of Van Wagenen’s, would not regress despite his being 36 years old and coming off a season in which he missed 80 games for violating baseball’s performance-enhancing-drug policy.
The bet has blown up on the Mets, who enter the All-Star break 10 games under .500. Cano is hitting a career-low .240 with four home runs — one fewer than the Mets’ pitchers — and Diaz has a 5.50 earned run average.
Kelenic and Dunn, meanwhile, represented the American League in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at Progressive Field. Yes, they are quite aware of how painful the trade has become for Mets fans.
“I’m hearing a whole bunch of stuff; people tell me about it all the time,” Kelenic said. “It stinks — in all honesty, I wish it was a win-win for both, I do. I mean, the season’s not over — it’s halfway over yet, it’s still early. I’m just kind of trying to stay out of it, because there’s nothing I can do, you know?”
All he can do is make the Mets regret their decision. Kelenic, a speedy 19-year-old center fielder with a smooth, left-handed swing, is batting .296 with 15 homers between two levels of Class A. This may not be his last appearance at an All-Star Game setting.
“He’s got every tool you need to be a longtime All-Star big leaguer,” said David Berg, the manager of the West Virginia Power, where Kelenic played his first 50 games this season.
Berg, who played seven seasons in the majors, struggled to even name an established player comparable to Kelenic.
“I really don’t have one, because he’s really that good,” Berg said. “He hits the high fastball no problem. He’s got power to all fields. He’s got speed, great defense, arm strength. There’s nothing the kid can’t do. I don’t know what he’s going to turn into, but he’s one of the best talents I’ve ever seen.”
In every at-bat, Kelenic said, he tries to hit a home run to left-center field. He figures that his hands are quick enough to react to inside fastballs, even at 100 miles an hour, but if he thinks about driving the ball to left-center, he will stay back on breaking balls and maintain a compact swing. His initial home-run goal this season, he said, was 10. Now he wants to hit 30.
“That kid is special — and he knows it, too,” Dunn said. “That’s the cool part about it. He’ll let you know he knows it. So I give him a hard time, even when we were over there. But he’s special, and I’m glad to have to him on my team.”
The Mets took Dunn, 23, with the 19th overall pick out of Boston College in 2016. He is 5-3 with a 3.82 E.R.A. this season for Class AA Arkansas, with a career-high 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He has attacked the strike zone more consistently, he said, with help from a changeup that Frank Viola taught him in the Mets’ farm system.
Dunn grew up as a Yankee fan in Freeport, on Long Island, but had still looked forward to playing for a New York team. He said he did not blame Van Wagenen for trading him before he got the chance.
“Brodie just kind of let me know it was a business decision — he had to do what was best for the organization,” Dunn said. “I understand that, being from New York. You know what winning means, and you know how important the Mets are to the city, so he had to do the right move for his team and that was help them win now.”
The Mets have not done that. Their season has devolved into a series of on- and off-field embarrassments, including a revelation in The New York Post that Van Wagenen had thrown a chair during a profanity-laced tirade in the coaches’ room after a loss to the Phillies on Friday.
In spite of it all, the Mets are sending three players here for the All-Star Game on Tuesday: outfielder Jeff McNeil, starter Jacob deGrom and first baseman Pete Alonso, who will participate in Monday’s home run derby. Kelenic expects Alonso to win, and Dunn brought his Polar Bear Pete T-shirt to Cleveland to support his pal.
But while their friendships with Alonso have endured, their bond as teammates was severed with one fateful move last off-season. Kelenic and Dunn will be back in their minor league towns soon, back to tormenting the team that dumped them in a doomed effort to win now.
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