Waukesha’s Jarred Kelenic Just Might be Wisconsin’s Best Baseball Prospect in 50+ Years

Meet the teen from Waukesha West who just became Wisconsin’s best-ever hardball prospect.

On a cloudy early June afternoon, Jarred Kelenic dons a royal blue cap and gown, ready to become a Waukesha West High School graduate. Like many 18-year-olds, he’s about to embark on a new career, but his is unique among his classmates: Five days earlier, the New York Mets drafted him in the highest position ever for someone from Wisconsin.

“It’s pretty surreal to wake up and realize that now I’m a professional baseball player, but this is what I’ve worked for,” Kelenic says at his family’s Town of Waukesha home, where a small Mets flag of blue, orange and white is planted in the front yard. In a few hours, he will make the trip to New York City for a physical exam by the team’s doctors.

Several days earlier, family and friends gathered at the home to watch the draft on TV. When the Mets make Wisconsin baseball history by taking Kelenic with the sixth overall pick – the first high school player selected – he buries his face in his hands and weeps, overwhelmed by the moment. 

Kelenic, who had committed to play baseball for the University of Louisville before the Mets came calling, received a $4.5 million signing bonus. His initial assignment is with the rookie-level Gulf Coast Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

A smooth-swinging, left-handed outfielder who has had pro scouts drooling with his polished skills, Kelenic stands 6-foot-1 with 195 pounds of lean muscle carved by vigorous daily pre-dawn workouts.

Kelenic never played high school baseball – with no regrets, he insists. Instead, he earned a spot on Team USA’s under-18 squad, competing against many of the country’s top players. “It truly tests you mentally and physically, playing every single day, like a professional,” Kelenic says. Although most of the games are played during summer break, some are during the school year, so Kelenic had the added challenge of doing homework on the road and scrambling to catch up in the classroom when he returned.

The support from Kelenic’s parents, Lisa and Tom, has gone beyond the usual encouragement into actual investment. Tom Kelenic has developed several local sports facilities, including the eight diamonds of Infinity Fields youth baseball and softball complex in the Town of Waukesha – although it was not Jarred but his big sister, softball player Taylor, who was their father’s motivation for the project. Tom Kelenic grew weary of having to drive Taylor 30 miles or more to play so-called home games, sometimes against other Waukesha-area teams, because of a lack of fields with lights.

He also developed the neighboring NX Level high-performance training center, which lists Pewaukee native and Houston Texans star J.J. Watt among its clients. And Kelenic’s nearby Stiks Academy and Sports Training features an indoor baseball field and batting cages that provided his son with a place to practice during the harsh winters and rainy springs that have long held back development of Wisconsin’s baseball talent.

Joe Randa, who starred at Kettle Moraine High School and played 12 seasons in the majors, first saw Kelenic’s talents about six years ago at Infinity Fields, where Randa was coaching his own youth team in a tournament. “Jarred really is the total package,” says Randa, a special assistant for baseball operations with the Kansas City Royals. “He can be very humble but he does have some cockiness, too. He wants to be the best, every single day.”

Randa, who played against Tom Kelenic in high school, has bonded with the budding young star. “He’s helped me out a lot,” Jarred says, “especially with the mental side of the game, teaching me how to relax because I’m such an uptight guy.”

Photo by Kenny Yoo

Kelenic’s parents, Tom and Lisa, have worked to encourage and provide opportunities for their children’s talents – including Tom’s development of several sports and training facilities. “But the drive and passion that Jarred has, you can’t teach that,” Lisa says.

Photo by Kenny Yoo
Even with top-notch physical skills, dealing with the mental aspects of professional baseball can often be the biggest challenge, Randa warns. “There hasn’t been a lot of failure for Jarred, and failure is a big part of baseball,” he says. “How he adapts will go a long way in determining if he makes it to the majors.”

Kelenic must also learn to deal with the notoriously opinionated New York sports fans, who immediately after the draft turned to social media to express their feelings about Kelenic’s selection.

“I get a kick out of it,” Kelenic says. “Even sometimes when they hate on me.”

“Star Power” appears in the August 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 30th, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.