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Jarred Kelenic saga brings back memories of Scott Kazmir, another top Mets prospect who got away

Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic watches his two-run home

Seattle Mariners' Jarred Kelenic watches his two-run home run against Cleveland in the third inning of a baseball game Friday, May 14, 2021, in Seattle. Credit: AP/Elaine Thompson

There are a million different reasons why Rudy Giuliani wasn’t in the postgame clubhouse Friday night at Safeco Field after Jarred Kelenic’s three-hit night, including his first major-league home run.

So in that sense, Kelenic’s breakout performance — in just his second game for the Mariners since Thursday’s promotion — isn’t exactly like Scott Kazmir’s debut 17 years ago at the same ballpark for the team formerly known as the Devil Rays.

Otherwise, the Kelenic hysteria back here on the East Coast, which is only in its infancy, is hauntingly familiar from a Mets perspective.

And yes, in a detail that previously had faded from my memory — I was there covering Kazmir’s five scoreless innings (four hits, three walks, four strikeouts) — huge Yankees fan Giuliani was yukking it up in the clubhouse with then-Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella and Tino Martinez as Kazmir, only 20 at the time, was getting a celebratory beer shower.

Giuliani’s only claim to fame back then was that he was a former New York City mayor, making it an extremely odd coincidence that he was in Seattle for Kazmir, whom the Mets made the 15th overall pick in the 2002 draft. But as we’ve come to expect in the Mets’ realm, things can get weird, and trading Kazmir for Victor Zambrano (plus Bartolome Fortunato) — only three weeks before Kazmir's MLB debut! — is the standard by which all subsequent prospect deals are measured in Flushing.

For Kelenic, however, we’re obviously way, way early in the process. The hype train for the 21-year-old outfielder has accelerated to ridiculous speeds since the Mets traded their top prospect (the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft) to the Mariners in a seven-player deal that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to Queens.

Friday certainly didn’t help. Kelenic went hitless in his debut the previous night, momentarily easing any Mets anxiety, but he smacked a two-run homer in the third inning Friday before adding a pair of doubles in the Mariners’ 7-3 victory over Cleveland.

Kelenic reached for a split-fingered fastball on the outside edge of the plate and hooked it 403 feet over the right-centerfield wall.

Still new to this, he sped around the bases, then disappeared down the dugout steps before the crowd summoned him back for a curtain call. Kelenic popped up and waved his helmet. He later said that was his first curtain call at any level, but it’s going to get pretty familiar pretty fast for him.

"I never have," Kelenic said of taking curtain calls. "I didn’t even know that’s what they wanted until people were like, ‘Yo, get out there.’ I didn’t know what was going on until I realized that everyone was standing up. But that’s something I’ve always imagined. I’ve seen other guys do it. I remember when Bryce Harper hit two home runs on Opening Day and he got a curtain call. So I don’t know . . . it was perfect."

The Mariners’ rising star has drawn comparisons with Harper, who drilled his first homer nine years to the day before Kelenic’s, and that chatter no doubt will intensify in the months ahead.

One thing about Kelenic — he seems to have that flair-for-the-dramatic gene in his baseball DNA. In three different promotions since coming to the Mariners, Kelenic’s first hit has been a home run. He went deep twice in his first game for Triple-A Tacoma earlier this month.

"I was thinking the same thing, actually, after it happened," Kelenic said. "It’s just kind of weird how that works out. But I’m not complaining about it, that’s for sure."

The Mets’ motivations for trading Kazmir and Kelenic were similar in at least one respect: Both deals were supposed to be win-now moves.

In 2004, then-general manager Jim Duquette tried to bolster the rotation with a pair of deadline acquisitions in Kris Benson (which cost Jose Bautista) and Zambrano, who famously could be "fixed in 10 minutes," according to a quote that has been attached to pitching coach Rick Peterson.

With Kazmir, however, there were circumstances that went beyond his on-field talents, clubhouse whispers about an attitude that angered the vets and questions raised concerning his pitching mechanics.

None of those proved to be an issue for Kazmir going forward, and Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar spoke words that had to be chilling for Mets fans on the eve of the youngster’s 2004 debut.

"He went to bed every night hoping and dreaming to be a New York Met," LaMar said back then.

After those deadline deals, Zambrano made only three starts (2-0, 3.86 ERA) before landing on the injured list with a flexor muscle strain. The Mets went 22-37 the rest of the way, going from eight games out on July 30 to 25 games out by season’s end, and Duquette was replaced by Omar Minaya.

To date, Kazmir is a three-time All-Star who has made nearly 300 starts in the majors (297) and is 108-96 with a 4.01 ERA. Now 37, he’s still pitching in the Giants' organization for Triple-A Sacramento.

The Kelenic swap was executed in early December 2018 — about five weeks after former CAA agent Brodie Van Wagenen was introduced as the new GM — and it involved some heavy financial lifting. Van Wagenen not only parted with two of the Mets’ best prospects (Kelenic and pitcher Justin Dunn) but took on the remaining $120 million (net $65M) for Cano, his former client, in addition to getting closer Diaz.

Two years later, Cano is serving a season-long PED suspension — saving the Mets $24 million — and Diaz has rebounded, going 5-for-5 in save chances with only two truly awful outings in 14 appearances. All of his five earned runs have come in those two outliers and Diaz has struck out 18, with five walks, in 14 1/3 innings.

Cano still has two years remaining on his contract, but his future in Flushing is sketchy at best. Diaz alone hardly is enough for the Mets to shake free of Kelenic’s shadow, unless — maybe — the closer has a perfect October that ends the championship drought in Flushing. The bling of a recent World Series ring tends to outshine any glaring mistakes of the past.

But in the meantime, the Kelenic highlights are going to be impossible to ignore, as are comments such as "I want to bury our opponents each and every night."

Unlike Kazmir, however, Kelenic could legally enjoy a few gulps of the beer before he was showered with it Friday night — along with everything else his teammates dumped on him.

"I’m hacking up [talcum] powder right now in my throat and in my lungs," Kelenic said, smiling. "It’s tough, but I’ll get through it. It’s all part of the experience, and that’s the stuff people don’t get to see that’s a lot of fun."

Get used to seeing plenty of Kelenic in the future. Those in the Mets’ organization may want to cover their eyes, especially president Sandy Alderson, who drafted Kelenic only to have Van Wagenen trade him away before Alderson's return. The fact that Kelenic plays for the Mariners now isn’t Alderson's fault, but imagining what might have been in a Mets uniform can’t make all this any easier.

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