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Draft  | Story  | 5/10/2018

Kelenic continues his climb

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Jarred Kelenic (Perfect Game)

PG Iowa Spring League Wrap | 2018 MLB Mock Draft v. 2

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa – RJ Fergus has seen this show before, but any encore performance is something he will never grow tired of and will never fail to appreciate. To use one of the lines credited through the years to Yogi Berra, it’s like “déjà vu all over again,” and in only the best way possible.

Fergus is the owner of, and an instructor and coach at, Hitters Baseball Academy (HBA) and in more than two decades on the job he’s had thousands of prospects come through that have gone on to play ball at the collegiate and professional levels. Some of them have been pretty special – MLB Draft first-round special – and this spring he’s been watching one such dude wrap-up his high school career.

Jarred Kelenic is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound 2017 Perfect Game All-American left-handed hitting centerfielder, U. of Louisville signee and senior at Waukesha (Wis.) High School. He has used a tremendous work ethic and his five-year relationship with HBA to develop into the top prep position-player prospect in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft.

PG ranks Kelenic as the No. 4 overall prospect in the draft, behind No. 1 Casey Mize, a right-handed pitcher at Auburn; No. 2 Matthew Liberatore, a left-hander who is a senior at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz., and Nick Madrigal, a second baseman at Oregon State. In PG’s MLB Mock Draft Version 1 published April 20, Kelenic was selected by the Giants with the No. 2 overall pick.

He was at Independence High School this past weekend playing in a pair of double-headers Saturday and Sunday for Fergus’ powerhouse Hitters Baseball 2018 outfit. On Sunday morning/early afternoon, he and his Hitters’ teammates played an equally talented Iowa Select Black 2018 in a pair of nine inning games in front of dozens of scouts.

Kelenic has become accustomed to playing in front of scouting throngs. Over the last 11 months the personable 18-year-old performed to a very high level at the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C., the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., and the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego.

He also played for the USA Baseball 18u National Team for a second straight year last September; he was the Most Valuable Player for the Team USA squad that brought home the gold medal in 2016.

“This last year has been pretty eventful, and exciting at the same time,” Kelenic told PG on Sunday. “I got to play with a lot of great people – the best kids in the country – and it ultimately made me better. That was a big stepping-stone for me.”

The partnership between Kelenic and Fergus at Hitters Baseball began when Jarred was an eighth-grader and blossomed into a perfect relationship. He calls it the “best organization in the Midwest if not the country” and praises the coaches and facilities that are made available to him.

The central message of the organization is to compete every pitch and never take a pitch off, and Kelenic takes the message to heart. It’s the same message that was conveyed to recent Hitters Baseball alumni Gavin Lux and Ben Rortvedt, former Wisconsin preps who are now playing professionally.

Lux was a first-round pick (No. 20 overall) of the Dodgers and Rortvedt a second-round pick of the Twins in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft; both were 2015 PG All-Americans. Corey Ray, another Hitters Baseball alumnus, was a first-round pick (No. 5) of the Brewers out of Louisville in 2016.

“Jarred learned a lot about the work ethic and the drive that is required by seeing his former teammates get drafted really high,” Fergus told PG Sunday. “That really set the tone for him, that he wanted to be drafted higher than Gavin and Ben and Corey and the guys that he’s worked out with during the winter.

“He saw that he could play with those guys and at times play better than them. They pushed him when he was a freshman and a sophomore just by saying, ‘Come on, man, let’s go.’”

And off he went, showing great improvement and great promise at every stop along the way. Following the leads of Lux and Rortvedt on his way to the PG All-American Classic, Kelenic turned in Top Prospect List performances at the 2016 PG Junior National Showcase in Fort Myers, the 2016 PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego and at the 2017 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers.

“In a showcase environment when you run your 60 (yard dash) and throw from the outfield and hit and do all the other stuff, you ultimately want to be the best player you can be,” Kelenic told PG while at the National last June. “It may sound selfish, but I think everybody here, when we do these events, we want to perform to the best of our abilities and we want to be better than anybody else here.

“On the flip-side of that, when you play games out here you play to win; that’s the biggest thing. I have the same attitude at a showcase as I do at a tournament: I play to win; I don’t like losing.”

Although Kelenic excelled when put in the structured environment of a showcase, Fergus believes he was able to climb draft boards based more on the way he played in the competitive games at high-profile tournaments.

Fergus remembered taking his young outfielder to the 2014 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., where the then 15-year-old Kelenic hit a couple of doubles off older pitchers and also threw a runner out at the plate from centerfield.

That performance came only a little more than a week after he had made his PG tournament debut at the 2014 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his first of three appearances (2014-16) at the PG WWBA World Championship qualifying event.

Kelenic really opened both eyes and doors when he was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2015 Kernels Championship after helping Rawlings Hitters Navy to the tournament championship. The event took place in October of what was his sophomore year in high school.

“He’s turned himself into what he is today through hard work and everything else that he does,” Fergus said. “We related to him though a few of the guys that have made it to the big leagues, is the bottom line, man, ‘I don’t want anyone else taking a chance on me feeding my family or setting the standards on how my family is going to live someday.’ Nobody’s going to out-work him.”


… … …

and he got to experience the flavor and fierce emotions of international baseball in both the fall of 2016 and 2017.

“Playing with Team USA was probably the best experience of my life, just being able to play with such a great group of guys, such a great group of coaches,” he said Sunday. “Having ‘USA’ on your chest is something different just because you’re playing for the whole country and not just one organization; that meant a lot to me.”

Closer to home, he also seemed to be enjoying himself playing with his Wisconsin buddies for Hitters Baseball 2018 and rejoiced in the fact that the final weekend of the 2018 PG Iowa Spring League was finally played under a sunny sky with the temperature hitting 80 degrees.

Kelenic used this extended offseason – spring hadn’t really sprung in the Upper Midwest until May 1 – working diligently in the weight room and getting as much indoor work done as possible. Most of the games played between Hitters Baseball 2018 and Iowa Select 2018 were of the simulated variety, played at PG’s and Hitters’ indoor facilities in Cedar Rapids and Racine.

The Hitters 2018 roster features 12 prospects who have either signed with or committed to NCAA Division I programs, and that includes 2020 corner-infielder and Louisville commit AJ Vukovich, who PG ranks as the No. 25 overall prospect in his class.

The Iowa Select 2018 roster offers six D-I recruits – 14 others have signed with/committed to smaller four-year colleges or junior colleges – including Kelenic’s West teammate at the PGAAC, outfielder Levi Usher. The games between the two teams were very competitive, and the head-to-battles ended with each team winning three and losing three, with one tie.

Kelenic hit .457 (16-for35) in 10 total games this spring, with six doubles, a home run, eight RBI, 10 stolen bases and a 1.237 OPS. Cold weather and snow in April was the root of a lot of frustration early on, but that doesn’t mean the entire experience was a negative one.

“Repetition – just getting out there and playing every single day – is what’s going to make everybody better; all of the events that I went to were great,” Kelenic said, adding that he approached every one of them as a potential learning experience.

“You’ve got to treat it like it’s Game 7 of the World Series every time out because if you take a pitch off or do anything like that, it just starts bad habits, and that’s not what I’m all about,” he continued. “I’m out here every day trying to take it one pitch at a time and compete every pitch.”

Waukesha West plays a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) summer schedule, so Kelenic has never played for his high school team, opting instead to work with Fergus. Hitters Baseball Academy features a 44,000 square-foot indoor facility with 16 batting cages, four pitching mounds, a major league sized turf infield and a 2,300 square-foot strength training area, according to its website.

“It’s got everything a baseball player needs,” Kelenic said last June. “Especially when you’re up north like that and it gets cold and you can’t play outside, it’s just something that can really help us. … (Fergus) pushes me to the limit (but) if you can play for RJ, you can play for anybody.”

Fergus recalled that when Kelenic first became part of his program as a 6-foot, 170-pound eighth-grader, his physical stature wasn’t that imposing but the feel he had for the game mentally was off the charts.

“He didn’t want to get beat in any at-bat and thinks he should get a hit every time, and you could just tell,” Fergus said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years now and it doesn’t take much to tell the special ones from the non-special ones.”

And now he’s making the same sort of impression on Hitters Baseball’s younger players that Lux and Rortvedt made on him. “They all see it, just how he comes in, how he takes his BP, how he throws from the outfield,” Fergus added. “Hopefully it rubs off on some of the younger guys now and in the future.”

The scouting report from his performance at the PG National addressed both his offensive prowess at the plate and his defensive superiority in centerfield:

“Very strong athletic build. A 6.57 runner, has centerfield range and speed with a high-level right field throwing arm, makes accurate throws with very good carry, highest level defensive outfielder. Left-handed hitter, hits from a spread stance, excellent raw bat speed with a low-tension swing and loose hands, ball flies off the barrel, big power when he turns on the ball but will let it travel and drive it up the gaps as well. Advanced player with all the tools, plays hard.”

The key to playing centerfield at an elite level is an obvious one, according to Kelenic: “The main thing is, you need a great first step. I’m just trying to focus on getting a good jump right off the bat and then everything will take care of itself,” he said.

“People can doubt, or they can say what they say, but when the ball is hit, it doesn’t hit the green grass,” Fergus said of Kelenic’s ability to patrol the wide-open spaces in centerfield. “That’s all that matters.”

According to a report in Baseball America, Kelenic begins each day at 4:45 a.m. when he wakes up, reports to his personal trainer at 5:15, works out until 7:30, heads off to school and returns home before spending a couple of hours in a batting cage.

He has worked closely through the years Joe Randa, a native of Milwaukee who enjoyed a 12-year career in the major leagues before retiring in 2016. “Joe has been like a best friend to me. We talk on a daily basis; I’ve known him forever,” Kelenic said.

As far as current big-leaguers are concerned, Kelenic said he tries to pattern his game after that of Mike Trout, which is certainly setting the bar high. But who better for an athletic prep centerfielder from Wisconsin to emulate than an All-Star and an AL MVP centerfielder from New Jersey who many recognize as the best player in the game right now.

The approach the instructors and coaches at Hitters Baseball Academy take may have ultimately led to Kelenic’s decision to sign with Louisville. The program’s track record under 12th-year head coach Dan McDonnell speaks for itself and Kelenic is impressed with the way McDonnell and his staff are able to get the most out of the players they get on campus.

It is, of course, unlikely that Kelenic will be on the Louisville campus this fall. The MLB Draft has a way of altering even the best-laid plans.

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outfielder on the Minnesota State University-Moorhead softball team, and when the Dragons took their spring trip to Clermont, Fla., to play 10 games in early March, Kelenic and his parents, Tom and Lisa, decided to take in a few of the games.

Clermont is only about an hour’s drive north of Lakeland, Fla., known for the last 100 years or so as “TigerTown” because it is the home of the Detroit Tigers’ spring training complex. The Tigers, who have the No. 1 pick in June’s MLB Amateur Draft, got word that Kelenic was going to be in the neighborhood, so they invited him over for a workout.

Everything went well, by all accounts, although Kelenic said the MLB scouts and front office personnel he has had contact with keep their thoughts close to their vest.

“Really, they just tell me to keep playing hard,” he said. “It’s out of their control right now, too; nobody knows what’s going on. I think right now we’re just focusing one day at a time, like I said earlier.”

If the Tigers are entertaining the thought of selecting Kelenic 1-1, it would continue a mini-trend of clubs using the first overall pick on a prep position player who was playing in the PG All-American Classic just nine months previous: the Phillies took outfielder Mickey Moniak at 1-1 in 2016 and the Twins did it with shortstop Royce Lewis last year.

Kelenic would also be the first player to be selected 1-1 right out of a Wisconsin high school in the history of the MLB June Amateur Draft, which dates to 1965.

“Taken as a whole and being a player up in Wisconsin, when people say we’re at a disadvantage, we look at that and think, ‘Thank you for saying that, and we’re going to show you that we’re not,’” Kelenic said in June. “We walk around with a chip on our shoulder and that’s how we play the game.”

PG’s first 2018 mock draft saw four other 2017 PG All-Americans go off the board within the draft’s first eight picks: right-hander Ethan Hankins (Georgia) at No. 5 to the Reds; left-hander Matthew Liberatore (Arizona) at No. 6 to the Mets; right-hander Carter Stewart (Florida) at No. 7 to the Padres and third baseman Nolan Gorman (Arizona) at No. 8 to the Braves.

And so, the warm weather states have all spoken and been accounted for. The kid from Wisconsin simply feels blessed to be part of the conversation.

“To even be mentioned in any sort of Major League Baseball Draft (discussion) is something special,” Kelenic said Sunday. “At the same time, all that really matters right now is being out here today, especially when it’s 80 degrees out.

“I really try not to think about it too much because it’s out of my control. My eyes are set on Louisville; that’s the only thing that’s guaranteed right now. I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

Taking it one day at a time has worked pretty well for Kelenic up to this point in his life, mostly because he’s never taken his eyes off the prize. He’s worked hard, and now he’s ready to reap the rewards.

Five years ago, when Kelenic first starting visiting Hitters Baseball Academy, there were a couple of prospects in the room and the batting cages who were two years older than he was and were in the right place at the right time to show the youngster the right way to go about his business.

Gavin Lux and Ben Rortvedt from the class of 2016 were on the Rawlings Hitters Navy roster that rolled to a 7-0-0 record and the title at the 2015 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship. It was ironic that it was Kelenic – one of only two 2018s on the roster with the other being top prospect Alex Binelas – was the player who left Cedar Rapids with the MVP trophy in tow, but not necessarily surprising. Guys like Jarred Kelenic are always taking care of business.

“I think the difference with Jarred and Gavin and Ben and guys like that, is they look at it like they want a career in the big leagues, they don’t look at it like ‘I’m going to get a million-dollar signing bonus.’” Fergus said. “They look at it like ‘I want to make it to the big leagues.’

“Jarred carries himself that way day in and day out, and it makes a difference,” he concluded. “He wants a career in baseball, he wants to be an All-Star, he wants to be able to go fishing when his name’s in the Hall of Fame. That’s how he carries himself.”