PEORIA, Ariz. — They’re sprawled out on the short grass in front of the first-base dugout, their toes nearly touching.
Jarred Kelenic has his left leg stretched forward. Julio Rodriguez is just a foot away, shifting between various lower-body stretches, when inspiration hits him.
“Bro,” Rodriguez says, “let me try on your shoe.”
Kelenic unties the right-foot laces on his size-12.5 black UnderArmour spikes and hands it over. Rodriguez pulls a size-12.5 white Nike spike off his right foot. They slip on the other’s shoe.
A perfect pair, it appears.
For the past month, Kelenic and Rodriguez have been almost inseparable around the Mariners’ spring-training facility, ever since Rodriguez saw Kelenic on the first day of camp near the batting cages and made a point to introduce himself:
“Hey, nice to meet you. My name’s Julio.”
As two of the most important pieces of the Mariners’ step-back plan, Kelenic and Rodriguez might not be all that far off from a formal introduction on the Seattle baseball scene.
Kelenic (pronounced KELL-nick) is a 19-year-old left-handed-hitting center fielder from Wisconsin. The coveted return in the Mariners’ Robinson Cano-Edwin Diaz blockbuster trade with the Mets, Kelenic has the classic five tools baseball scouts have been ogling since his sophomore year of high school, and an intense drive to fulfill his can’t-miss potential.
Rodriguez (pronounced J-Rod) is an 18-year-old right-handed-hitting right fielder from the Dominican Republic. He’s big and strong and has an infectious personality. Step into the Mariners’ cramped minor-league clubhouse and he is not difficult to find; he’s the one in the middle of everything, dancing, laughing, mood-lifting.
“He’s a character,” Kelenic said.
They are aware of the demands and expectations placed upon them, from inside and outside the organization, and they welcome them.
“I don’t look at it as pressure, because my expectations are higher than anybody else’s,” Kelenic said. “But at the same time, I can do it. I know I can. There’s not a doubt in my mind, and I love that they’re leaning on me to help start from the bottom and make our way to the top.
“I’m going to give them everything they want.”
Rodriguez is ambitious, too.
“Do you know my biggest dream?” he asked. “Win the first championship here. That’s my dream. My biggest dream. That would be awesome.”
Their shoe exchange unfolded mid-afternoon before a batting-practice session on a back field at the Mariners’ facility. Wearing the other’s right shoe — and their own opposite-colored left shoe — they jogged out to center field together and shagged fly balls.
They jogged back in a few minutes later to take several rounds of batting practice together. This has been the norm since the start of camp: For just about every hitting session, they have been paired in the same group.
Rodriguez, 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, has a long, smooth stroke, and he belted one pitch over the wall in right-center. That, he said later, is his approach: middle-away, and in his head he hums a catchy “middle-middle-middle” tune to reinforce that approach.
Scouts also project Rodriguez as a potential above-average defender in right field.
“He’s got a lot of things that a lot of people look for in a baseball player,” Kelenic said.
When Kelenic stepped into the cage on the back field, he casually lined several balls the opposite way. Rodriguez watched from the other side of the netting.
“He’s always hitting the barrel. He is so, so consistent,” Rodriguez said. He adds: “We are like (spending) hours together. I’m learning about his work ethic. He is always locked in.”
Kelenic attributed that work ethic to his parents. When he was in high school, Kelenic’s mom would wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get ready to commute to her job in Chicago, a two-hour drive south.
That inspired him, beginning his freshman year, to set his alarm for 4:45 a.m. so he could work out before school at one of the two training facilities co-owned by his father. After school, he would return to hit in the indoor cages.
As a junior, Kelenic was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which he said his doctor attributed to “over-working” his body. The doctor ordered rest for two-and-a-half weeks.
“It’s a weird brag,” Kelenic said, “but how many people can say they literally over-worked their body?”
The Mets selected Kelenic with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, making him the highest selection ever for a Wisconsin high-school player.
Rodriguez was 16 when he signed with the Mariners in July 2017 as an international free agent.
Since then, Rodriguez said he has worked diligently on learning the English language, and it shows. He mixes in easily in a diverse minor-league clubhouse, excitedly stopping mid-sentence to greet a teammate — “Hey, Sam, how are you?!” — with a handshake and a bro hug.
“I’m friends with everybody here. For me, it’s the best,” he said. “This for me means a lot. It’s who I am.”
He made an early connection with Kelenic during spring training. Last weekend they had dinner together at Kelenic’s condo and planned to enjoy some time around the swimming pool.
They’ll have more opportunities for similar outings throughout their 140-game summer in the South Atlantic League.
Both are scheduled to begin their Mariners minor-league careers with the West Virginia Power, the M’s new Low Class A affiliate, Kelenic in center, Rodriguez in right — right where they want to be, together.