Maybe Mets fans can take solace in the idea that perhaps Justin Dunn was never destined to pitch for their team anyway. Dunn grew up in Freeport, Long Island, 23 miles from Citi Field and attended games as a kid there and at old Shea Stadium. When the Mets drafted Dunn in the first round out of Boston College in 2016, it looked like a classic local-kid-makes-good story.
The only hitch: Dunn grew up rooting for the Yankees. He wanted to be the next Derek Jeter more than the next David Wright. His dad is a Yankees fan, a Bronx Bombers diehard Dunn called “the biggest baseball fan I know.” So Justin had little choice: He also had to cheer for the Yankees. When his younger brother decided at one point to become a Red Sox fan — “an act of rebellion,” Dunn laughed at last month’s Futures Game in Cleveland — his dad soon put a stop to that idea.
Still, that didn’t make last December’s trade any easier to take. Dunn had looked forward to pitching in the majors down the road from his hometown, playing in front of family and friends. Then came the shocking news: He and outfielder Jarred Kelenic, the Mets’ first-round pick in 2018, had been traded to the Mariners for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.
Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen called Dunn and explained 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, which was to try and win now.”
Dunn hasn’t completely severed his Mets ties, however. On the night of the Futures Game, he had dinner with former minor league teammates Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil. He had been texting with Alonso all season and even brought a Polar Bear T-shirt to the game. He called Alonso “my big little Teddy Bear and best friend.”
Kelenic was in Port St. Lucie with other Mets minor leaguers in an offseason training program when he first realized he could be traded — even though the Mets had just made him the first high school player drafted, sixth overall, and he had quickly impressed during his first professional season. A group of players was at a restaurant when Kelenic saw his name on a TV screen. “I looked up at a TV and my name was up there as a rumor. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Is anyone else seeing this?'”
His mom also saw the rumors. “I was like, ‘Mom, this doesn’t happen to first-year guys. It just doesn’t happen,” Kelenic said. He went home to Wisconsin. Three days later he was traded. The blockbuster deal went down on Dec. 3, one of the most controversial trades in years. Yes, the Mets were getting an elite and inexpensive closer in Diaz, but Cano was a 36-year-old second baseman, and while he had a good season for Seattle in 2018, he had also been suspended for PEDs and, more problematic, still had five years remaining on his contract. The Mariners would pick up some of the money, but many Mets fans were apoplectic over the deal.
Things look even worse now. The Mets are competing for a playoff spot, but not because of Diaz and Cano. Diaz is 1-6 with a 5.60 ERA and lost his job as Mets closer. Cano is hitting .252/.295/.415 with 32 RBIs and will likely miss the rest of the season with a torn left hamstring. Meanwhile, Kelenic and Dunn have continued to blossom into top prospects.
Kelenic is hitting .298/.371/.532 with 17 home runs in 99 games and was just promoted from high-A to Double-A (he began the season in low-A). Dunn is 7-4 with a 3.66 ERA at Double-A Arkansas with 132 strikeouts and 32 walks in 110.2 innings.
On his midseason update of top 50 prospects, Keith Law ranked Kelenic No. 8, writing “He’s a plus runner who might stay in center, though I could see him getting bumped by a plus defender there and moving to right field due to his arm. He has high-OBP, 30-homer potential, and that will play at any spot.” Dunn was honorable mention for the top 50. Keith wrote, “He’s still a bit too much of a two-pitch guy, focused on his fastball up to 94 and a plus breaking ball, and there’s a touch of effort in his release. I know several scouts who like him, but as a reliever. I still say he can start but acknowledge the volatility.”
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Before GM Jerry Dipoto’s offseason rebuilding program that brought in Kelenic, Dunn, Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford, the Mariners were once again in line to have the lowest-ranked system in the majors. Over the previous five seasons, Baseball America had ranked the Mariners 30th, 21st, 28th, 24th and 25th. The despair goes well beyond that, however, which helps explain why the Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the majors.
Going back to 1999, just two players the Mariners drafted in the first round have produced 10 WAR in the majors: Adam Jones, who was traded to the Orioles in an ill-advised deal for Erik Bedard, and Brandon Morrow, who earned just 2.1 WAR with the Mariners. From 2009 to 2014 they had four picks in the top six, selecting Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen, Mike Zunino and Alex Jackson. Zunino has the been the best of the lot and he was traded to Tampa for Mallex Smith, who has had a 0.0 WAR season for the Mariners.
Along the way, Dipoto’s rapid-fire moves to keep the Mariners in dubious playoff contention drained the system of what little talent it did have. Ryan Yarbrough is now a valuable member of the Rays’ staff. He was a throw-in trade that brought Drew Smyly to Seattle (he got hurt and never pitched for the Mariners). Emilio Pagan, now the Tampa Bay closer, was traded to Oakland for Ryon Healy, who has produced negative WAR in two seasons with Seattle. Dipoto gave away Chris Taylor to the Dodgers and Pablo Lopez — one of four players traded to the Marlins for David Phelps — has a chance to be a quality starter. Even the Mitch Haniger trade doesn’t look so great now that Ketel Marte has developed into a star for the Diamondbacks.
But it’s been a good 2019 for the farm system, with Kelenic and Dunn leading the way. The roster at Double-A Arkansas is currently stacked:
RHP Logan Gilbert (No. 50 on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects), the team’s first-round pick in 2018 out of Stetson, has a 2.86 ERA through his first six starts there and a 2.03 ERA across three levels of the minors.
1B Evan White (No. 73 on MLB.com) is a slick fielder hitting .290 with 16 home runs.
C Cal Raleigh, a third-round pick in 2018, has struggled in his call-up to Arkansas, but hit .261/.336/.535 with 22 home runs at Class A Modesto.
Sheffield struggled with his control at Triple-A, but has hopefully fixed his mechanics after a demotion to Arkansas, where he has a 1.75 ERA in 11 starts with 79 strikeouts, 16 walks and one home run in 72 innings.
OF Kyle Lewis has finally been healthy and showcased the tools that made him a first-round pick in 2016.
Then there’s outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who is quickly rocketing up prospect boards (MLB.com has him at No. 53). The 18-year-old Dominican is hitting .296/.361/.496 for Class A West Virginia as one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League.
“I think we’ve done what we said we were going to do,” Dipoto recently told The Athletic’s Corey Brock. “We identified young players, we went out and improved our farm system, through the draft and international signings and with a lot of these trades. We have refocused what we’re doing. It’s making a difference.”
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The Mariners are now regarded as having a top-10 system. The fans are pinning their hopes for a bright future on the development of Kelenic, Dunn and the others. At the Futures Game, well before his promotion to Double-A, Kelenic was happy with how his season had gone.
“To be completely honest, it’s been even better,” Kelenic said in Cleveland. “There are definitely times I can sit back and look at what I’ve done and continue to do. I never thought I’d have 15 home runs at this point. I didn’t even know if I’d have 15 home runs on the year.”
He and Dunn are also aware that in some regard they are the faces of the franchise now, even more so than many of the players on the major league roster. With that comes the pressure of performance. “My most simple answer to that is that my expectations are higher than anyone else’s,” Kelenic said, “so if I can go out and achieve my expectations, I’ll already have exceeded everyone else’s.” When asked when he expects to reach the majors, he laughed, “I want to be there now.”
Dunn is one of those total baseball rats, which bodes well for his ability to learn and adapt. He even said he gets in trouble with his girlfriend sometimes for playing too much MLB The Show. A key pitch for him this season — and for his ability to eventually thrive in the majors as a starter — is a changeup Frank Viola taught him when he was with the Mets organization. “I’m pounding the zone better,” he said. “My strike rate is up with all my pitches. And I’ve added a new weapon to the arsenal, the changeup, and starting to use it a lot more.”
Both players are likeable and highly motivated — Kelenic even finished high school early so he could focus on preparing for the draft his senior season — another reason for Mariners fans to be excited about their arrival. It’s been a disaster of a season at the major league level for the Mariners, but for the first time in a long time, there’s real reason to be optimistic about the future.
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